“Atlantic City” – The Band (Words/music: Bruce Springsteen, available on Jericho, Rhino 1993)
This Levon Helm led version of “Atlantic City “ threw me for a loop the first time I heard it. I know Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska by reputation as some of his starkest songs with some of his darkest characters. So hearing the brightness of the accordion and mandolin on the Band’s version caught me off guard. For a song where the narrator turns to gambling as a desperate solution to problems, The Band’s version sounded too bright. It sounded more like a leisurely afternoon on the boardwalk than terse moments inside a casino.
So I went back to Springsteen’s recording and found his original version closer to this one than I remembered. Sure, this isn’t the inspired, determined protagonist associated with a lot of his later work, but the main character in “Atlantic City” isn’t completely devoid of hope. He tempers his observation that “everyone dies” with the hope that “everything that dies someday comes back.” Whether it’s what he wants to believe or it’s a true sign of faith, hope remains nonetheless. Even some of the sonic details in the Band’s version that I found surprising – specifically the mandolin and the harmony vocals – exist in Springsteen’s recording too. Whether Springsteen plays a mandolin or an acoustic guitar in its upper register, a string instrument accompanies him the same way his double-tracked vocal harmonizes with him during the chorus. Levon Helm and his bandmates did what good covers often do by highlighting certain aspects of the original. As a result, it creates a distinctly unique version of the song that differentiates itself while still paying tribute to the original.