Album Review: Bruce Springsteen's 'Wrecking Ball' crashes through
Think Bruce Springsteen likes how things are going? Here are a few lines from his new album, “Wrecking Ball,” out March 6.
*“I got a Smith & Wesson 38/I got a hellfire burning and I got me a date”
*“Gambling man rolls the dice/working man pays the price/It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill”
*“If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight”
*“Send the robber barons straight to hell”
*“The bottom’s dropping out/Where you once had faith, there’s only doubt”
He’s mad as hell about America, our America, his America, and his anger fills every crevice of “Wrecking Ball,” his 17th studio album. (Stream it live here or listen at the bottom of the page.)
At 62, Springsteen has long grown comfortable, if not fully embraced, his role as chronicler of our times, a modern-day Woody Guthrie. And these times have given him plenty of fuel... or ammo, as it were.
Taken as a piece— as this album is undoubtedly meant to be for all of you folks who like to cherry pick a song or two from iTunes— “Wrecking Ball” is a masterful look at how decimated this country is right now, and, yet, we must remain united.
"Wrecking Ball" fits in perfectly with his last two: 2007’s “Magic” looked at the chicanery of the Bush administration, the war in Iraq, and the damage done; 2009’s “Working on a Dream,” as flawed an album as it was, was recorded in the glow of Barack Obama’s election to president (though much of that album was largely non-political), and now “Wrecking Ball” sets it sights on the devastation and destruction wrought on the middle class and increasingly growing lower class, by Wall Street and failed policies. Determination gives way to resignation as the severity of our situation starts to sink in on song after song. (See our ranking of Springsteen's albums here and rank them yourself)
Nowhere is this more evident than the album’s emotional soul: “Jack of All Trades,” one of the most searing, sorrowful songs every written by Springsteen (and that’s saying a lot). The protagonist will work, well, at anything, to put food on the table for his family. Springsteen has made a career out of characters in dire straits, mister, but this one is at the end. As he sings “We’ll be all right” toward the final pass, the music, a minor-key, New Orleans-like dirge, betrays any sense of hope his lyrics still try to convey.
With the weariness in the protagonist’s voice palpable, he finally admits, as his defeat turns to anger, “If I had a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot them on sight.”
On the blistering “Death To My Hometown,” which starts with Revolutionary War fife and drum corps, Springsteen sings of a bloodless revolution. There were no cannon balls, rifles, bombs, bloody bodies or fires, but, just the same, life as we knew it has been utterly destroyed by robber barons of the Brooks Brothers-wearing, new millennium variety.
Over and over, Springsteen stresses that this has happened before and this is just the latest time that the common man has been trampled upon. Maybe that’s one reason why so much of the album is rooted in Irish music. The penny whistles, accordions, banjos and other acoustic instruments give “Wrecking Ball” a direct link to “The Seeger Sessions,” on which, of course, Springsteen paid tribute to fellow social justice advocate Pete Seeger, and, by rooting the music in a certain timelessness, it gives the songs a greater historical weight. Many of these tunes could have been written about the Great Famine in Ireland, the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, or any time of strife, as now.
“Shackled and Drawn,” about belonging to “The Man,” (said much more elegantly, of course), fits squarely into that assertion, especially with its ending coda taken from a 1959 recording by Velma Johnson and the Sacred Harp Singers. But it’s not the only look at the past: “Rocky Ground” includes part of a 1942 recording of “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord,” while album closer “We Are Alive” contains elements of June Carter/Merle Kilgore’s classic “Ring Of Fire.” “The Depression,” which alludes to not only our current economic stage but the mental toll it takes, could apply to any era of hard times, no matter who is at the helm.
Springsteen has told the story of how a random fan shouting “We need you!,” at him after 9/11 helped lead to the creation of 2002’s “The Rising,” a stirring album that drew much of its inspiration, for lack of a better word, from that horrible day. At that moment, and in that story, it’s clear that Springsteen fully understood and bought into his own mythology. That’s not a complaint, it’s an acknowledgement, but there are times when, as a longtime fan, I want relief from the world in my Springsteen music, and lyrically, this album offers little of that its first two-thirds. This is not an album to help you escape your problems, but it will make you feel less alone.
The title track, which fans who have seen him on the last tour are already familiar with, is the turning point. After hitting the depths, “Wrecking Ball” begins to dig us out of where we are and tries, without ignoring the reality, to re-instill some sense of hope and unity.
“Wrecking Ball,” which Springsteen debuted during shows at New Jersey’s Meadowland before the stadium was torn down, reminds us that “hard times come and go” with a call to “c’mon and take your best shot,” before the horn-drenched ending cascades into a jubilant defiance.
“You Got It,” the weakest track on the album, is a stripped-down, mid-tempo love tune that recalls a multitude of Tim McGraw songs for its simplistic look at love. It serves equally well as a lasting declaration or as a song to drunkenly serenade a girl during last call. In some ways, it’s the direct opposite of “The Depression,” a much more heartfelt look at someone who desperately needs a human touch to save him in these times.
On “Rocky Ground” he sings “A new day is rising,” and invokes Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple. Judgment Day is coming for all of us. Springsteen, who is no stranger to loops, embraces them and other effects to greater, more obvious degree on this album, from the otherworldly guitar effect on the opening of “We Take Care Of Our Own” to “Rocky Ground.” The latter is the album’s most sonically interesting track, build around an insistent, haunting drum loop, the aforementioned sample, and soulful, beautiful vocals from Michele Moore, who also raps (a first, as far as we recall on any Springsteen set). In fact, Springsteen’s is the last voice we hear. It could have been a mess, but it works wonderfully.
Just like “Wrecking Ball,” Springsteen concert-goers will also recognize “Land Of Hope And Dreams,” a concert staple that first appeared on 2001’s “Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: Live in New York City” set and gets its first studio recording here.
The album closes with “We Are Alive,” a reminder that all the spirits and souls of those who have fought the good fight before us are here with us, guiding us through our journey until we join them: “We are alive and though we lie alone here in the dark/our souls will rise to carry the fire and light the spark.” A very twangy western version of “Ring of Fire” (which is plenty twangy to start with) comes in that sounds more like the “Bonanza” theme song, but it helps root the song in the spirit of the past and that America is a country of achievers (either that, or it’s going to make you want beef for dinner).
Springsteen worked here with producer Ron Aniello for the first time and he’s done an admirable job of roping in the great ambition and scope that the Boss entered the album with. This is grand, sweeping stuff, even if some of it is delivered one person’s story at a time, and Aniello, for the most part, proves up to the task.
Only four members of the current E Street Band show up here: Max Weinberg, Patti Scialfa, Charles Giordano and Soozie Tyrell. Clarence Clemons last known contributions to the band are captured here too on “Wrecking Ball” and “Land of Hope and Dreams.” But for the most part, Springsteen wrangles in a large assortment of outside musicians to realize his vision here, including Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello on “Jack of All Trades” and “This Depression,” as well as ex-Smashing Pumpkins drummer Matt Chamberlain on several cuts. Most noteworthy are the horns, even tuba, that come in and out of almost every track. They ground the songs when they need it and soar them into flight too. Some of the players here, such as Curt Ramm, will join Springsteen on tour and they prove what a welcome addition they will be.
Before I heard the album, I asked someone who had heard it what he thought and he replied simply, “It’s the only album he could make right now.” For someone like Springsteen who goes through life as an observer and with his eyes wide open, I agree.
What do you think of "Wrecking Ball?"
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