In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re picking songs about living in the city.
I’m only a mild-to-moderate Bruce Springsteen fan, but like anyone with a beating heart I was bowled over by Nebraska, his most critically revered album. Recorded on a portable studio at Springsteen’s apartment in early 1982, the songs were originally intended as demos, but full-on E Street Band versions apparently lacked the intimacy of his home recordings, and they were shelved. (Their legend pops up on “great shelved albums” lists every few years.) Man, Springsteen made the right choice, though it was probably gutsy at the time: He was coming off The River, which was a sizeable hit, when he released the largely acoustic Nebraska. The best song on the album—and Springsteen’s best-ever song, in my opinion—is “Atlantic City,” the second song on Nebraska, and a haunting, evocative portrait of low-life life in the city. There’s not a word wasted, from the puzzling opening line about the “chicken man” (a reference to a mafia boss who’d been killed by a bomb the year before) to the desperate delivery of the narrator talking about doing a “little favor” for somebody. Then there’s the chorus (“Everything dies, baby that’s a fact / but maybe everything that dies someday comes back”) and Springsteen’s keening backing vocal; if what he says isn’t enough to excite the hairs on the back of your neck, his howls definitely will. Dozens of artists have recorded their own versions, from Eddie Vedder to The Hold Steady to Mumford & Sons to Justin Townes Earle, who did it on the first season of A.V. Undercover. But nobody’s nailed it like Springsteen did, alone in his bedroom with just his guitar and a shitty portastudio.