Chrissie Hynde sings the title track, which imagines Charles Starkweather's shotgun raid through the state as the ultimate nihilism: I guess there's just a meanness in this world is the only explanation offered. Adam Seymour's and Hynde's ghostly playing gets the atmosphere right, but Hynde can't overcome her natural irony. Not only does she sound unrepentant, but she doesn't especially sound like she ever picked up a gun, either. Los Lobos similarly struggles, draining the urgency from "Johnny 99" by making it a sax-driven shuffle.
Hank Williams III also adjusts his cover for the dance floor, but in his care, "Atlantic City" becomes a Bob Wills 78 rpm record. Springsteen began playing the song as a full-on rocker years ago, making Williams' version, which quiets to a spooky dustbowl ballad halfway through, the bravest take here.
The disc dries out in the middle. Dar Williams' reading of "Highway Patrolman" adds brushed drums, a male harmony vocal and a full-band coda that, among the performers, sounds the most like the E-Street Band. But at six minutes long, the piece is indulgent, something not helped by the sluggish pair that follows. Deana Carter whispers and coos unrecognizably through "State Trooper"; Ani DiFranco's "Used Cars" sounds as if she sang through a cell phone. The album proper ends with Son Volt sounding like Son Volt, Ben Harper sounding like Cat Stevens, and sales-challenged marrieds Aimee Mann and Michael Penn making the harrowing finale, "Reason to Believe," a tossed-off lullaby.
Two of the three Nebraska-era Springsteen songs tacked on as bonus tracks make the disc almost worthwhile. Johnny Cash was born to sing "I'm on Fire," and Raul Malo of the Mavericks unleashes his heartbreaking tenor on "Downbound Train," Springsteen's best meditation on Reaganomics as financial and romantic devastator. Cash and Malo make the songs their own. The rest of the cast is too reverent or just plain mismatched to the material, proof again of all that Springsteen makes look easy. But then, that's the best to be expected of tribute discs: the failure of the devoted held up to honor the artist.