Nebraska Bruce Springsteen (Columbia) Bruce Springsteen's decision to ditch his E Street Band following the release of his hit double album The River initially ranked up there as one of the most baffling rock'n'roll decisions ever in the early 1980s. After all, the group's 20-song fifth release featured a top 10 hit in the bouncy single Hungry Heart and nobody was questioning whether the New Jersey-based singer was truly worth the hype, for he was proving it with marathon three hour-plus shows. Nonetheless, Springsteen had darker thoughts on his mind and in the tradition of guitar-picking legends Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, the musician sat down with a guitar, a harmonica and a four-track recorder in the bedroom of his Colts Neck home; 10 songs later, he had created a stark masterpiece that influenced many artists and still resonates to this day. The eerie, lonesome tones of a harmonica blare out over gentle guitar picking on the opener Nebraska. 'I saw her standing on her front lawn, just a-twirling her baton,' he starkly sings with heaps of foreboding in the air. For this is Springsteen's take on the 1950s murder spree that 19-year-old Charles Starkweather went on with his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate over two months, killing 11 people. 'They wanted to know why I did what I did,' he sings during the song's closing words. 'Well sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world.' It was a theme that would carry through much of the album. Over a barely-there guitar line and a Springsteen vocal that sounds like a croak, Highway Patrolman tells the first person story of an honest policeman named Joe Roberts who's 'got a brother named Frankie and Frankie ain't no good'. With clear shades of John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men in the writing, Springsteen details the tough choices that Roberts has to make when his Vietnam war veteran brother keeps getting into more and more legal trouble back home. State Trooper and Johnny 99, the album's surprise choice for a single, were even bleaker. Over a simple, ragged, guitar motif on the former, Springsteen's echoed voice rings out like a mantra as he implores a state trooper not to stop him on the New Jersey turnpike, the clear indication being that something dangerous would take place. On the latter, a near rockabilly riff leads to an emphatic harmonica solo as Springsteen details the story of a man whose murderous crimes leave him begging for the electric chair in front of a judge. Perhaps not surprisingly, dozens of artists, including Eddie Vedder and The Hold Steady, have covered the relatively brighter song Atlantic City. 'Everything dies baby, that's a fact,' Springsteen sweetly sings. 'But maybe everything that dies, someday comes back.' The kicker to that one is that while his girl has her hair up pretty for their romantic night in Atlantic City, he's about to go join an organised crime mob. Initially, all of the songs that appear on the finished version of Nebraska were meant to be demos for the E Street Band to hear and expand upon. Among bootleg circles there's a Nebraska Electric session with the full band that has never been officially released. However, behind the scenes, everyone seemed to agree that Springsteen's demos recorded on a thousand-dollar four-track recorder were stronger. In retrospect, they were right. Although not a commercial hit, Nebraska was hugely acclaimed critically and artists such as U2 cited it as the lo-fi kind of style they wanted to emulate when they went to record their rootsy album The Joshua Tree five years later. Johnny Cash, who knew a good song when he heard it, even covered two Nebraska tracks for an 80s album he even called Johnny 99. As for Springsteen, some of the outtakes from those sessions, including Born in the USA, formed the crux of his mega-selling follow-up album. He would later go back to the well to record in the same vein again, most notably with the 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad. But it's hard to top perfection, especially with a group of songs so durable that he readily rearranged them regularly during his most recent tour.