I hate to be the voice of dissent—especially when it comes to one of my personal heroes—but this year’s Wrecking Ball is far from Bruce Springsteen’s best album. The excitement built around his stark, Occupy-driven album was lost upon listening through Bruce’s repetitive lyrics and reissued compilations (Hello! We’ve already heard “Wrecking Ball”, “Land of Hope and Dreams”, and the bonus track “American Land”). Yes, it’s musically diverse and should produce some arena-rocking power when heard live, but these lyrics can’t be written by the same man whose first few albums were as poetically beautiful as anything ever put to music.
Which would you rather read?
“Crawl into my ambulance, your pulse is getting weak
Reveal yourself all now to me girl, while you’ve got the strength to speak
‘Cause they’re waiting for you at Bellevue with their oxygen masks
But I could give it all to you now, if only you could ask”
—“For You” (1973)
“You put on your coat, I’ll put on my hat
You put out the dog, I’ll put out the cat
You put on your red dress for me tonight honey
We’re going on the town now, looking for easy money”
—“Easy Money” (2012)
The first, from Greetings From Asbury Park, is a section of the 550-plus-word song I know by heart and love accordingly. The latter is one of four verses making up a 229-word entry from Wrecking Ball. Well, really it’s two of four verses because he uses the lines again to conclude the number. Looking at the two verses is like night and day, and illustrates my frustration with Springsteen’s latest perfectly. While I’m enthralled by his musical ambition, I’m pissed his lyrical drive has all but disappeared from his latest record.
So, should fans be worried? Is the Boss slipping in his later years? After all, his last album was no Born to Run either. Wrecking Ball may have a fight on its hands with Working on a Dream (2009) for Bruce’s Worst of the Aughts crown. Both are probably his most musically diverse, but neither matched the captivating energy of his 2006 genre-breaking collaboration We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Session. Is New Jersey’s proudest son past his prime?
Well, probably. His prime was in the 1970s. The better question, though, is whether or not we can give up on the Boss being anything other than an astounding concert performer (reports on his recent world tour are overwhelmingly positive despite the album’s mixed reviews). Despite my disappointment in Wrecking Ball, I can’t write-off the rocker just yet. Why not? In the last 10 years, with and without the now-dwindling E Street Band, Springsteen has created some of his best music. No album as a whole approaches Born to Run’s cultural status, but select songs are equally memorable and musically vital. I could probably list 20-30 favorites, but these 10 show why we may not want to take a wrecking ball to the man just yet.
1. “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” - The Rising (2002)
If anyone was worried the Boss couldn’t harness the collective energy of an arena after a decade away from the all-powerful E Street Band, this addictive, compelling soon-to-be tour staple quelled their fears right quick. Some of his best songs feature infectious tunes that contradict their dour lyrics (“Born in the USA”), and this one upholds the tradition proudly even as it hints at hope.
Choice Lyric: “Funny, thought I felt a sweet summer breeze / Must’ve been you sighin’ so deep.”
2. “You’re Missing” - The Rising (2002)
There’s no hope to be found in this tragic piece of songwriting about a widower coping with his kids, friends, and family after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It’s stark composition matches Springsteen’s bare-boned lyrics. It tears you apart with its stillness.
Choice Lyrics: “Children are asking if it’s all right / Will you be in our arms tonight?”
3. “The Rising” - The Rising (2002)
The title track to Springsteen’s Grammy-winning 9/11 record is just as powerful today as it was 10 years ago. An embodiment of its title, “The Rising” gains steam as it progresses towards its climax, making it an ideal song for both a record player and a concert venue. It’s a commanding song for modern America lead by an imposing voice of generations’ past.
Choice Lyrics: “Can’t see nothin’ in front of me, can’t see nothin’ coming up behind / I make my way through this darkness, I can’t feel nothin’ but this chain that binds me.”
4. “Devils and Dust” - Devils and Dust (2005)
One of only a few Springsteen songs I ever learned to play myself (I’m not the musically gifted member of my family), this acoustic number from his solo album of the same title holds a special place in my heart. Don’t let the personal bias distract you though—“Devils and Dust” finds Springsteen questioning his faith, philosophizing about the soul, and discovering a distraught emptiness at his core. In short, it’s the Boss at his best.
Choice Lyrics: “I’ve got my finger on the trigger, and tonight faith just ain’t enough / When I look inside my heart, there’s just devils and dust.”
5. “Long Time Comin’” - Devils and Dust (2005)
With Rosie’s subtle name-drop near the end of the song, it’s easy to imagine “Long Time Comin’” as Springsteen’s conclusion to the story of “Rosalita” started on The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle way back in 1973. One of Bruce’s few family stories ending on a high note as well as one of the few featuring an F-bomb, this joyously fierce piece is perhaps the most reflective mark on Bruce’s later career.
Choice Lyrics: “Well if I had one wish for you in this godforsaken world, kid / It’d be that your mistakes would be your own / That your sins would be your own.”
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.