Like a zombie in a shopping mall, impervious to the bullets fired at its heart by the desperate and weary, the tribute album continues to stomp across the landscape of rock, pop, and soul, destroying all in its soulless, heartless path to destruction. The latest victim is Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen's landmark set from 1982, a bruised and battered collection of home-recorded songs that sliced through the pious, patriotic bullshit of Reaganomics with the literate passion of Woody Guthrie and the forlorn doom of the most brutal Delta blues. Released just two years after his commercial breakthrough with "Hungry Heart" and The River, the intimate, mostly acoustic Nebraska was both a high point for Springsteen (he'd never written better character studies) and a harbinger for the politically charged roots-rock movement of the mid-'80s.
The 13 artists gathered to re-create the record on Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, however, obviously haven't a clue as to what made the album simultaneously worthy of a tribute and entirely beyond their reach. Where Springsteen's songs -- mostly tales of dashed hopes, broken dreams, and America turning on its own -- were built on frameworks pulled from the simple progressions of ancient folk and honky-tonk and intensified by his defeated but often angry vocals, the interpretations here amount to so much boring mush.
Chrissie Hynde and Adam Seymour turn the title track into one long, exhausting yawn, sucking all of the drama and tension out of Springsteen's bio of mass murderer Charles Starkweather. Ani DiFranco does the same on the quintessentially blue-collar "Used Cars," while Son Volt turns the rockabilly rave-up "Open All Night" into a mournful ballad. Most everyone else -- an assemblage of crit-faves from Los Lobos and Ben Harper to Aimee Mann, Deana Carter, and the unabashedly cornpone Hank Williams III -- simply botches the material; clearly no one knows what to do with these seemingly simple songs of tragic life and heartache. Three songs written by Springsteen during the time of the Nebraska sessions flesh out this insufferable, exasperating bomb of an album, among them a disposable "Downbound Train" by the Mavericks' Raul Malo and a feeble Johnny Cash taking an embarrassing, painful stab at "I'm on Fire." (Someone please make this man retire.)
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If there's a reason to waste even a few minutes with Badlands, arguably the worst tribute album of all time, it's Dar William's daring, lovely "Highway Patrolman." Williams manages to crawl into the lyric and make it something of her own, beyond the gender-bending. (The song is narrated by the deputized brother of a criminal hellion.) The track is thus the kind of thing these tributes so seldom offer. But sadly, with a train wreck such as Badlands, it simply isn't enough.