[5 March 2012]
Not so long ago, it looked like Bruce Springsteen was thoroughly Bruuuced-out and would never make rock records again. Back in 1995, three years after firing the E Street Band and, for some damned reason, touring without them behind a pair of ill-received albums (the simultaneously released Human Touch and Lucky Town), Springsteen surfaced with a mustache and ponytail, released a somber folk album (The Ghost of Tom Joad), and went on a solo-acoustic theater tour. Bruce looked thickish, sang only in drawls and whispers, and wouldn’t release another album for seven more years, and as each of those years passed, Springsteen Nation grew increasingly worried that their hero would never again sing “Badlands” in a packed arena, let alone a stadium, standing in front of the E Street Band.
Fast forward to 2012. In the last ten years, Springsteen has, not counting his new record, released five albums—three of original rock material, an Americana covers record, and a solo mostly-acoustic album—along with massive box-set reissues of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town (which came with two discs’ worth of unearthed songs from 1978). Moreover, the last decade has seen Springsteen embark on five world tours, including three with the reformed E Street Band, shows that found, against all odds, Bruce recapturing all of the power and range of his rock voice, going for three hours a night, playing unique sets at every stop, taking left-field requests from the audience, surprising die-hards with deep obscurities, and performing his classic albums in their entireties.
So, apart from the sad, irreplaceable losses of keyboardist Danny Federici in 2008 and Clarence Clemons last year, it’s been a career resurgence as generous as any Bruce maniac could have hoped for, and the roll continues with Wrecking Ball, the 17th Bruce Springsteen album. Springsteen romantics want to get their bearings with a new Bruce album right away, and as “wild” and “experimental” as the new album was purported to be in advance, the musical direction of Wrecking Ball isn’t much of a surprise given the Boss’s musical instincts of late.
In fact, the album springs from a couple of recent Springsteen directions. First, the gospel-soul influences that informed “My City of Ruins”, a song that asked for spiritual redemption in the wake of 9-11, and that song’s rousing reach—to matters of palms-out faith and blood-‘n’-fire imagery and la-la-la codas—is a thread that runs from “The Rising” to “Land of Hope and Dreams” to “Long Walk Home” to the new “We Take Care of Our Own”. Second, the boisterous Americana that Bruce forged with his band of trombones, banjos, washboards, and accordions while covering Pete Seeger tunes on 2006’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. In fact, if there’s a single moment that pointed the way to what would become the Wrecking Ball sound, it’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”, an old Blind Alfred Reed standard to which Springsteen rewrote the lyrics as a response to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy. The song appeared on an expanded edition of We Shall Overcome, alongside “American Land”, an original, barn-burning Irish jig about the false promises of the American Dream. On these songs, Springsteen resurrected roots traditions—blues, gospel, folk, bluegrass—to serve as musical backdrops that tie old economic injustices to new ones.
Wrecking Ball is, without question, about such hard times, just as Darkness on the Edge of Town was about Carter-era hard times and Nebraska was about Reagan-era hard times. If Wrecking Ball is “angrier” than either of those albums, as has been much reported, it’s in the new record’s relative overtness in its handling of its subjects. One of Springsteen’s gifts as a songwriter, from Darkness on anyway, has been in his ability to paint specific character vignettes that speak to larger social concerns—the failed dreams of the shutdown stranger and hotrod angel in “Racing in the Street”, the ex-con who feels the itch again in “Straight Time”, the kids who suddenly realize they are adults destined to repeat the mistakes of their parents in “The River”, “My Hometown”, “Adam Raised a Cain”, and a few dozen others. But while most of Springsteen’s songs about class and society strike glancing blows at the destructive forces in charge (“foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back”; “come back home to the refinery/hiring man said, ‘son, if it was up to me…’”), the characters in “Wrecking Ball” are less elusive about whom to blame for their troubles, cutting out the middle figures like foremen and hiring men and taking on the real culprits unambiguously.
On Wrecking Ball, the heat-packing protagonist out looking for “Easy Money” rails against “all them fat cats” who think his desperation is funny. The rock-breaker in “Shackled and Drawn” hollers, “Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills/It’s still fat and easy up on bankers hill”. The struggling handyman in “Jack of All Trades” vows, “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.” The narrator of “Death to My Hometown” details the “vultures” and “greedy thieves” who “destroyed our families’ factories and…took our homes” and hopes to “send the robber barons to hell”. “Rocky Ground” speaks of a divine retribution for failing to take care of our own: “We’ll be called for our service come Judgment Day / Before we cross that river wide / Blood on our hands will come back on us twice.”
It has, in fact, been awhile since Bruce met a biblical reference that he hasn’t been tempted to turn into an extended metaphor, but Wrecking Ball is Bruce’s most, well, Jesus-y album to date. Most obviously, the record is threaded together with gospel-music archetypes, from wailing preachers to testifying choirs, bringing to mind the throttled, sweatball preacher shtick that Bruce ran into the ground on two straight tours during his aughties comeback. But lyrically, Springsteen turns continually to biblical themes. In “Jack of All Trades”, the speaker hopes that “we’ll start caring for each other like Jesus said that we might”; in “”Rocky Ground”, we’re reminded that “Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand”; “We Are Alive” invokes “a cross up on Calvary Hill”; bonus track “Swallowed Up (In the Belly of a Whale)”, beyond the obvious allusion in the title, calls on “God’s Mercy” as a matter of birthright.
This is all part of the narrative structure of a cohesively designed album, sequenced to rail against economic injustice by way of catchy, rattling folk-blues numbers on the first half of the record and to rise with spiritual redemption in the second half by way of train-a-comin’ rafter-raising. The first five songs are all at turns hopeless and furious. Sixth track “This Depression” starts to change focus, blending worry over financial plight with the need for a healing love. “Wrecking Ball” turns the corner, a song of endurance—“hold on to your anger”, Springsteen sings, but “don’t fall to your fear”, a theme that carries through the gospel-influenced one-two punch of “Rocky Ground” and “Land of Hope and Dreams”, spirituals that promise new-day salvation for all lost but faithful souls.
Despite the range in the record’s narrative arc, the political fire of the first half of Wrecking Ball establishes a tone that the album never quite shakes. So if 2002’s The Rising will always be remembered as Springsteen’s “9-11 album”, it’s a safe bet that Wrecking Ball will go down as his “Occupy album”. Message aside and from a purely musical standpoint, the new album is Springsteen’s most enjoyable and freshest-sounding in ages.
Bruce has said that Wrecking Ball is one of the most direct records he’s ever made, and, since it is the first album of originals in ten years that Springsteen has recorded without producer Brendan O’Brien, he may be right. After all, O’Brien is a notorious futzer in the booth, and the layered, dense quality of 2007’s Magic and 2009’s Working on a Dream often took the arrangements unrecognizably far from the E Street shuffle of yestershore. Ron Aniello was brought in to produce Wrecking Ball, a move that paid off, as the record sounds terrific, not that Aniello brings a particularly light touch—the personnel list is a mile long, and the record is brimming with samples, electronic beats, and piled-on instrumentation. Yet Springsteen’s voice is pushed up front, and the sonic embellishments gracefully support the songs and rarely feel indulgent or detract from the almighty melodies on the record. Instead, the vocal whoops, electronic drums, and sound effects are subtle enough to avoid imposing themselves but timely enough to add rhythm and propulsion to the tracks.
Lead single and album opener “We Take Care of Our Own” follows “The Rising”’s musical template—that is, a crescendoing cacophony of anthemic, monochromatic choruses and vocal hey-heys about faith and country and elemental imagery. These are scathing message songs that sound patriotic, an irony lost on nearly everyone who hears them, another great Springsteen tradition. In fact, the angriest songs on Wrecking Ball are the most fun to dance to.
“Easy Money” is more quintessential modern-day Bruceness, since synth-and-violin countermelodies have largely supplanted the sax-and-keys sound of old. The fiddles do-si-do with a thick wash of guitar and gospel background vocals for a midtempo two-step hootenanny, featuring Bruce yelping like the dude from “State Trooper” ready for another ride into the wee wee hours. “Shackled and Drawn”, a hammer-slinging chant mined from the great folk songbooks, is Bruce’s catchiest chain-gang song since “Working on the Highway”.
“Jack of All Trades” finds Springsteen returning to straightforward ballad writing. Like much of the record, it’s either a love song about money or a money song about love, so call this one, “If I Should Fall Behind on My Payments”. In any case, it’s a lovely waltz, especially that trumpet solo, even though (or because?) it sounds like the theme song to The Waltons. And speaking of musical irony, Tom Morello guests here, lending one of his patented machine-shop guitar solos to the album’s slowest song.
“Death to My Hometown” is a rugged Irish stomp in “American Land” mode, as a tin whistle dances on a stormy rabble of jumbled chanting. It’s the record’s fieriest song, making like Dylan circa ’63 by piling on a catalogue of grievances that build to a perfectly-timed shotgun cock-and-blast.
“Wrecking Ball” is a ringer, a song that the Boss wrote for the impending destruction of Giants Stadium and debuted on the Working on a Dream tour. The version here is a leaner, faster machine, one that combines folk Bruce and rocker Bruce as well as any. Handclappy and fistpumpy, “Wrecking Ball” incorporates the acoustic-guitar-and-horns model of the Seeger Sessions into the anthemic rise-up fortitude of the classic, heart-swelling Springsteen mythos.
Nothing here sounds much like ‘70s or even ‘80s Springsteen, but “You’ve Got It” comes closest to what Bruce used to sound like in its melody and Bruce’s vocal delivery, and not just because it sounds an awful lot like “All or Nothin’ at All” from 1992’s Human Touch. “Rocky Ground” will be the song that divides the Bruce believers, as it’s the most fussily produced of the new songs, with a gospel-gal hook here, a shouting-minister sample there, looping beats everywhere, and… egads… some girl is rapping. It’s all artfully arranged and interwoven, but the rap verse wasn’t worth the gamble Springsteen and Aniello took, as Bruce’s reach finally exceeds his considerable grasp in this case.
The full-blown gospel choir that joins “Rocky Ground” segues into more Pentecostal shouting, which introduces “Land of Hope and Dreams”. It’s a song that anyone with an interest in Springsteen already knows well as an encore staple of recent tours. However, any feeling that the song’s inclusion is merely filler—an old song thrown in as padding—is swept aside by the terrific studio version here, a brighter, peppier take than the one released on 2001’s Live in New York City, and when Clarence’s unmistakable sax (one of just two appearances on the album) busts out of the bridge, it’ll bring you to your knees. The album version also manifestly pays tribute to “People Get Ready”, the song’s most obvious ancestor, and overall reminds us that “Land of Hope and Dreams” is one of Springsteen’s finest modern originals.
The regular set ends with “We Are Alive”, a song that, both thematically and musically, binds the record’s two halves—pissed-off folk and gospel-laced rock—as Springsteen gives voice, Spoon River style, to the subjugated dead, who join the ghost of Tom Joad, beneath banjos, handclaps, mariachi horns, and Tex Ritter guitars. It’s a suitable ending to a record that finds Springsteen still firing on all cylinders—writing with poetic urgency, drawing on traditions old and new, singing and playing with prime strength and energy, and delivering a new set of killer melodies with fresh sonic wallop. At this stage in a rocker’s career, it’s a lot to ask for, but Springsteen proves again that there’s nobody better to deliver it.