Continuing on last week’s theme, this week we take a look at what can result when an artist does indeed break out of his nice-guy perspective.
Bruce is, by all reports, a truly nice guy, both in life and in art. He seems to have a free-floating compassion desperate to fix itself to something, from the struggling loners of his early albums through Mexican immigrants in the 90’s to 9/11 first responders and survivors to, most recently, people affected by the 2008 financial crisis. His characters are caught up in circumstances they didn’t create, doing the best they can to get by. Bruce feels their pain and recognizes their good intentions. Even when the thwarting of those intentions leads to violent actions and bad results, as on much of “Nebraska,” he tends to blame larger factors, immigration laws, Wall Street bankers, society.
Except for a few rare instances, as in this song. The narrator here is addressing a woman–but not directly, he’s not speaking to offer advice or persuade her to effect a change, but as a way of explaining to himself why she is the way she is and why he is better. The song is a ballad, and from the ominious mood set by the piano we know something bad has happened to this woman: “welfare checks” are mentioned, but it has to be something bigger than that, homelessness, addiction, prostitution. I like to think of her as the person we last saw in “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” the one with the house up in Fairview and the style she was trying to maintain, all of which has fallen catastrophically apart. The narrator once had a relationship with this woman, envisioned a future with her: but she left him behind pursuing “the pretty things” that she’ll now never have, some higher material aspirations force-fed by her upbringing and the entire culture. She “took what she was handed and left behind what was asked,” surrendered self-determination for a vision of security that has turned out to be insupportable, hollow.
So far, so familiar. What’s different about this song is the total lack of compassion the narrator has for her. This isn’t tough love–this is truly the definition of kicking someone when they’re down. There is real anger here, and aimed not at capital-letter abstract targets as in other Bruce songs, but at this specific person. Sure, “they” shot her point blank, but she let herself get shot, made decisions like leaving narrator behind, chose to believe the “pretty lies” to ease her pain. She committed what for Bruce is the unforgiveable sin, giving up. It didn’t have to be this way, the song screams, in its hushed way. You could have been better than this.
Who hasn’t felt this at least a little bit, while watching a friend sabotage their life or succumb to a self-destructive path? Sure, you blame the disease, but you can’t help but blame the person as well, you can’t help but feel let down, wish they were smarter and stronger. You can’t help but be angry and hope you remember the anger when similar temptations come your way. Bruce opts in this song to indulge these not-nice feelings to create a cautionary tale, directed not to the woman herself (she, we sense, is too far gone) but to himself, and the rest of us. The gloating tone may be ugly, but it may also be all that’s keeping the narrator himself from being one false move, just one false move away.