Wrecking Ball

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia, 2012

http://www.brucespringsteen.net

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/12/2012

Bruce Springsteen has played a lot of roles both on and off the stage over the years: solo artist and bandleader; lonely guy and married father; melodramatic rock opera auteur, brooding folksinger and purveyor of nostalgic, witty bar-band rock. Add to that raucous, expansive idealist and somber, disillusioned social critic, and the range of the man’s work and musical vision becomes clear. The question each time a new album appears is always: which Bruce are we going to get this time?

My first impression of Springsteen’s 17th studio album Wrecking Ball was that the answer might be all of ‘em. Lead single “We Take Care Of Our Own” is a thumping rocker, an anthem that is thematically an almost seamless sequel to 1984’s “Born In The USA,” complete with easily misunderstood, ironically intended chorus. It’s a song about America’s failure to take care of our own, how we failed during Katrina, how we failed during the recession, how we’re still failing today. The bridge lays it out: “Where’s the eyes, the eyes with the will to see / Where are the hearts that run over with mercy / Where’s the love that has not forsaken me / Where’s the work that will set my hands, my soul free / Where’s the spirit that will reign over me / Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea.”  This is an anthem to a country that’s lost its way, its compassion, its humanity.

But the single/album opener is really a bit of sleight of hand. There are exactly three songs here with that sort of expansive ’75 –’85 Bruce feel, and they all emerge from a dark place with narratives about striving to overcome great trials and difficulties. For the most part, the album is taken up with one angry-folksinger screed after another against the villains Springsteen identifies as having plundered America’s economy and spirit over the past few years. Many of the tracks are rendered in the style of 2006’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, setting aside the sturdy thump of the E Street Band (who are nearly absent from this recording) in favor of a kind of barnyard ensemble of acoustic guitar, fiddle, organ, banjo, euphonium, pennywhistle, sousaphone and clarinet, not to mention garbage-can drums, all centered around Springsteen and multi-instrumentalist-producer Ron Aniello.

At the core of it all, though, lies one simple truth: dude is PISSED.

If you didn’t figure it out from “We Take Care Of Our Own,” there’s no mistaking the intent of the next five tunes, the guts of this album. First up, “Easy Money” is a Seeger Sessions-styled rant against the modern culture of greed, very much in the Woody Guthrie populist folksinger tradition, and also a direct descendant of 1982’s spare, haunting Nebraska. With full ensemble, strings, and fat chorused background vocals on second half, “Easy Money” unfolds as a populist gospel tent revival complete with a seething, sarcastic sermon (“There’s nothing to it mister / You won’t hear a sound / When your whole world comes tumblin’ down / And all them fat cats, they’ll just think it’s funny / I’m goin’ on the town now, lookin’ for easy money”).

“Shackled and Drawn” follows a similar template, with the bridge again providing the topic sentence: “Gambling man rolls the dice / Workingman pays the bill / It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill / Up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong / Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.” This is also where the album’s secondary theme—mortality—enters enters the picture as Bruce sings “Another day older, closer to the grave.” You can see why Springsteen would want to place this track third; even though it’s not the most powerful song on the album, it’s the one that really ties everything together thematically. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The six-minute “Jack Of All Trades” has a dirge-like quality and explosive finish reminiscent of a Nebraska-era tune given a fleshed-out arrangement. It’s a workingman’s lament about taking whatever work you can to get by, that lurches into a full-on Dixieland downbeat horn section before taking a sudden, nasty turn. The narrator has said all of the things that he’s going to do to bring in an income and take care of his family, trying and trying to reassure both them and himself, but in the end he doesn’t believe his own words. And so, finally, without warning: “So you use what you’ve got / And you learn to make do / You take the old, and you make it new / If I had me a gun, I’d find the / Bastards and shoot ’em on sight / I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be alright.” It’s Nebraska again, economic despair giving rise to violent impulse—and then guest Tom Morello’s electric guitar comes in and gives otherworldly, elegaic voice to the man’s anger and despair.

“Death To My Hometown” has the feel of a deranged funeral march, upping the tempo without changing the subject, three and a half minutes of emphatic outrage at the scorched-earth tactics of corporate interests and the human destruction they leave behind. “Sing it hard and sing it well / Send the robber barons straight to hell / The greedy thieves who came around / And ate the flesh of everything they found / Whose crimes have gone unpunished now / Who walk the streets as free men now / They brought death to my hometown.” “This Depression” follows, a big, spooky number that again harks back to Nebraska (“Baby I’ve been down / But never this down / I’ve been lost / But never this lost”) before Morello returns to give voice to this roiling emotion with another stinging solo.

The title track is where resilience and defiance return to the forefront. Originally written to commemorate the last show ever played at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, it’s a perfect fit here, a muscular anthem about defying the huge odds stacked against you: “C’mon and take your best shot / Let me see what you’ve got / Bring on your wrecking ball.” The arrangement and melody remind of “The Rising,” a sense of momentum and loftiness that grows as the song builds to a wordless climax, riding high over Max Weinberg’s relentless, slamming backbeat.

Using contrast to transition from the album’s second to third act, “You’ve Got It” is a slinky, sensual love song, a Springsteen specialty that’s otherwise absent from this album, featuring piano, horns and Greg Leisz’s spectacular slide guitar. The most controversial song on this album for Springsteen die-hards is also the one I found most impressive. "Rocky Ground" is an airy, ruminative gospel number that features female background vocals throughout, and pivots neatly to a gorgeous Michelle Moore rap on the bridge. It’s daring and unexpected, and also as fresh and vital as anything Bruce has recorded in 30 years. Its only real antecedent in his catalogue is 1993’s Oscar-winning “Streets Of Philadelphia.”

In the anchor position at track ten comes “Land of Hope and Dreams,” an anthem Springsteen’s been playing live since 1999 but hadn’t issued in studio form until now. In the context of this album, its urging-on verses and Clarence Clemons’ soaring sax solos take on a double meaning. “Land” could be a song about overcoming hardship, or it could be a song about the final journey we all take one day to a land where our troubles can’t follow us. “We Are Alive” is the album’s gently declarative finale, starting out spare before blossoming into a skittering banjo-fiddle duet—and quoting Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire”—somewhat of a sequel to “Blood Brothers,” declaring the sort of undying, everlasting brotherhood reflected in Springsteen’s remarkable eulogy for Clemons, quoted in the liner notes: “Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.”

The deluxe edition of this album tacks on an uneven pair of songs that are both very much in the Seeger Sessions vein. The ponderous “Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale)” quickly overstays its welcome, but “American Land” is a treat, a rollicking immigrants’ anthem that Springsteen jigs and shouts through with help from fiddle, hurdy gurdy and big chorused vocals.

Ultimately, Wrecking Ball is a deadly serious, often powerful statement of rededication from one of rock’s most important artists. The latter is a mantle Springsteen has often worn uncomfortably, but this time out he owns it, producing a document that’s both an emphatic socio-political statement, and as bold an experiment as any 62-year-old musical superstar has ever produced. It’s not my favorite thing he’s ever done—it’s hard to find the man inside all of these characters and allegories—but its artistry and impact are undeniable.

Rating: B+

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