“You can never go wrong being pissed off in rock ‘n’ roll,” Bruce Springsteen told an audience in Paris during the promotion of his 2012 album, Wrecking Ball. Released on the heels of the US Great Recession, Wrecking Ball reignited in Springsteen’s work the working-class frustrations that fueled a number of his earliest hits (“Incident of 57th Street”, “Born to Run”, “Thunder Road”, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, and “The River” among them). It also specifically revived the “critical, questioning, angry sort of patriotism” of 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
Ten years old this month, Wrecking Ball’s fury continues to be relevant (or, perhaps, is made applicable again) due to the working-class discouragement evident in modern union organizing efforts against stagnant wages and unprecedented inflation. Likewise, today’s anger at billionaire greed is paralleled by the album’s vexation with the corruption of too-big-to-fail banks and the politician-sanctioned bailouts that led to the Great Recession and left an entire class of people economically disadvantaged. Despite this bitterness, however, the album consistently keeps an eye toward hope through the theme of solidarity.
The consequences of greed and corruption are presented on the LP through images of destruction. That’s most notable in “Death to My Hometown”, a death Springsteen foresaw on “My Hometown” from Born in the U.S.A. On Wrecking Ball, though, the “my” turns to a collective “our”, creating a broader shared experience that extends beyond “the swamps of Jersey” (as Springsteen sings on the album’s title track) to hometowns throughout the depleted Rust Belt.
Anchored around the demolition of Giants Stadium in 2010, “Wrecking Ball” steps back into the 1980s, allegorizing the New York Giant’s success with a sound economy. It also parallels the franchise’s shortcomings (which resulted from the stadium’s demolition and the economic hardships felt by so many during the Great Recession). In stepping back, the song tells us what we already know: that “all this steel and these stories / They drift away to rust / And all our youth and beauty has been given to the dust / The game has been decided / And you’re burning down the clock / All our little victories and glories / Have turned into parking lots.”
However, the song also acts as a thematic fulcrum. It presents the same destruction prevalent on the rest of the album but keeps its head toward perseverance. The track re-frames that obliteration by posing it as containing something the one causing the devastation should know. Its speaker is hardly phased, challenging: “Come on and take your best shot / Let me see what you’ve got / Bring on your wrecking ball”. He also suggests a kind of “fight-back” mentality formed through the economy’s cyclical nature that sees “hard times come and hard times go”, as is sung repeatedly in the bridge.
Musically, Wrecking Ball carries this sense of perseverance through calls for solidarity, especially class solidarity. Its folk sound recalls 2006’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, an album that offers Springsteen’s take on 13 folk songs popularized by musician and pro-union activist Pete Seeger. But this link is not one of coincidence or convenience. It’s intentional. Wrecking Ball was recorded with several Seeger Sessions bandmates, including its entire horn section (Art Baron and Ed Manion), Soozie Tyrell, Charlie Giordano, and, of course, Patti Scialfa. Additionally, “American Land” was recorded during The Seeger Sessions but had remained unreleased until it appeared as the final track on Wrecking Ball.
Springsteen’s return to folk—and Seeger-inspired folk, especially—is necessary for creating the album’s sense of hopeful solidarity. Seeger originally learned the song referenced in the title of The Seeger Sessions, “We Shall Overcome”, from striking tobacco workers in South Carolina in 1945. Framed by Seeger’s pro-union social activism, the plural pronouns and adjectives used throughout Wrecking Ball encourage a kind of class solidarity that allows space for themes of hope to surface lyrically.
Paired with its music, the album’s lyrical attention to the plural cuts through the imagery of destruction, thereby framing the album as a call-to-action. The opening track, “We Take Care of Our Own”, rejects the power structures that led to the economic hardship reckoned with throughout the album. The song’s speaker opens by signing, “I’ve been knocking on the door that holds the throne”, only to end up discovering “the road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone”.
From here, the piece encourages a focus on mutual aid but applies it across an expansive map created throughout the song’s subsequent choruses. “We Take Care of Our Own” is not just a community-to-community call-to-action but one that stretches “from Chicago to New Orleans… / From the shotgun shack to the Super Dome / Wherever this flag’s flown”. In these lyrics is perhaps the record’s most explicit example of the “angry patriotism” Springsteen regularly referenced in the album’s promotion. The song’s reference to a flying flag suggests the kind of “positive” unification that permeated the US post-9/11 in the form of patriotism. Instead, the song inverses the framing of that unity to argue that it’s an economic struggle that unites Americans.
On “Jack of All Trades”, the LP’s typical universal approach is scaled back to show the Great Recession as experienced by (presumably) two partners. “Honey, we’ll be alright”, the speaker sing’s directly and intimately to this presumed partner in the chorus. The six-minute song begins with a litany of specifics, creating an intimacy that gives the consequences of the Great Recession a tangibility that the speaker feels through mood.
The speaker sings to the presumed partner: “I’ll mow your lawn / Clean the leaves out your drain / I’ll mend your roof to keep out the rain.” In the second chorus, this list continues: “I’ll harvest your crops / When they’re ripe and grown / I’ll pull that engine apart / And patch her up till she’s runnin’ right.” Coupled with the slow tempo and stripped-down sound, these lyrics fail to disguise fully the worry that leads to their utterance. While the chorus’ “we’ll be alright” phrase presents reassurance, the mood of uncertainty is already firmly established. Nonetheless, what else is there to hold onto in moments of uncertainty, if not the belief that “we’ll be alright”?
This mood carries into the song’s second half, where the minutiae fade into generalities. The specifics of intimacy fall away and are replaced by larger-scale problems. The speaker sings, “The hurricane blows / Brings a hard rain”, and later, “We stood the drought / Now we’ll stand the flood.” Between these lines, the album makes its most explicit reference to the cause-and-effect of the Great Recession: “The banker man grows fat / The working man grows thin.” Yet, it also proposes the same point laid out in “Wrecking Ball”: “It’s all happened before / And it’ll happen again / Yeah, they’ll bet your life”, but despite this, “we’ll be alright.” Understood through broader issues, the “we” is no longer a matter of two people but rather of a whole class of people. The sense of hope scales alongside the song’s imagery.
Through these wider images, universal applicability returns to the scope of struggle mapped in “We Take Care of Our Own”. The intimate moments made tangible in the song’s first half are more applicable, allowing the speaker to address this broader approach in the song’s final verse. No longer singing of the “I” and “We”, the speaker pulls from experience to offer advice to the new generation experiencing it, perhaps, for the first time: “So you use what you got / And you learn to make do / you take the old / you make it new.”
A decade later, the subject of Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball has passed. However, its moods of rage, worry, hope, and urgency for solidarity feel evergreen. It’s difficult to determine whether that sense is a result of the cyclical economic fluctuation referenced so often on the album or if it is a decade-long Rube Goldberg of the Great Recession’s consequences. Perhaps there is a little of both. Either way, Wrecking Ball’s anger has proven itself a timeless call for class solidarity.