Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bruce Springsteen, "Wrecking Ball": A Review

Every new release by Bruce Springsteen is a major event in my house.  Ever since his early, unreleased ('til 1998) R&B classic, "The Fever," was given substantial airplay on Philadelphia's WMMR and WYSP in 1974, the Boss has been among my favorite rock artists.  Indeed, by the time his nearly unparalleled string of classic albums, from 1973's "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle" through 1984's "Born in the U.S.A.," had run its course, Bruce stood alone at the top of my personal rock pantheon.  What always separated Springsteen from his major competitors (for me, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones) was that the lyrics of his songs were not simply random vehicles for the music.  They actually conveyed a well-thought-out message, conveyed in character sketches few of his peers could ever hope to emulate.

"Wrecking Ball" is Springsteen's fourth rock album of the new millennium.  Each of these has had an almost prophetic relevance to events and trends in contemporary American society: 2002's cathartic "The Rising" to 9/11, 2007's "Magic" to the government's lies that led to the Iraq War, 2009's somewhat less-successful "Working on a Dream" to the vague "hope" inspired by the election of a new President.  So it is with "Wrecking Ball."  Springsteen has said it is his response to the "Occupy" protests of the past year, and one can see why.  Sprinkled throughout are scathing references to "fat cats," "gambling m[e]n" up on "Banker's Hill," not to mention "marauders," "vultures," "greedy thieves" and "robber barons" whose crimes have thus far gone unpunished.  Indeed, the Boss has chosen to articulate his anger less obliquely and with broader brush strokes than in the past so as to use it as a blunt cudgel against the economic and political powers-that-be who have failed to keep the "promise"—yet another classic Springsteen theme dating to the "Darkness on the Edge of Town" era—"to take care of our own" "from sea to shining sea," and thus expose us as a nation "on judgment day."  Yet not is all Sturm und Drang here.  Springsteen, at the close of the album, leavens his anger with a note of hope ("Land of Hope and Dreams") and, indeed, resurrection ("We Are Alive"), that we as a people will listen, as Abraham Lincoln said, to "the better angels of our nature" and thus reclaim the ideals for which he believes America has always stood.

I approached "Wrecking Ball" with not a little trepidation because of the advance publicity that spoke of its "experimentation" and hip-hop influences.  Yes, the album does use samples of old gospel recordings made by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in the 1940s and 1950s.  Yes, it does make generous use of electronic drum loops.  Yes, it also shows the unmistakable influence of hip-hop on the distinctive "Rocky Ground," which even includes a 16-line rap by guest vocalist Michelle Moore.  Yet Bruce long ago used hip-hop rhythms in his award-winning "Streets of Philadelphia," and the rap is just as innocuous as that which graced John Mellencamp's hit "Peaceful World" a decade ago.  It may be a misstep—I, as a rock 'n roll dinosaur, tend to think it is—but it certainly isn't a major one.  Indeed, all the "experiments" do is serve to update the Boss's sound for a new generation, but the songs themselves remain classic Springsteen rock vehicles rooted in the foundational genres of country, blues, gospel, and folk. 

Three songs immediately stand out as potential concert staples for the great E Street Band.  The opening track, "We Take Care of Our Own," from the opening sledgehammer poundings of the snare to the sing-along chorus, masks its protest lyrics in a classic Springsteenesque musical idiom.  It may not be "Thunder Road" or "Badlands," but it certainly lives up to such latter-day openers as "Lonesome Day."  "Wrecking Ball" was originally written to commemorate the demise of Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, but its note of defiance in the face of seeming ruin fits the album perfectly.  Closest to the time-worn Springsteen sound is the great, gospel-infused "Land of Hopes and Dreams," well-known by virtue of its appearance on 2001's "Live in New York City."  Midway through I was brought to tears by the last recorded solo of the late, lamented Clarence Clemons.  His booming, throaty tenor solos will never be replaced or replicated.

Striking is the residual influence from his exploration of folk music in 2006's "Seeger Sessions."  Two of the best tracks on the album are the Celtic-derived hootenanny, "Easy Money," and the country-influenced folk song, "Shackled and Drawn."  Better yet is "Death to My Hometown," which not only alludes to his 1984 classic, "My Hometown," but sees Bruce channeling his inner Shane MacGowan.  Sporting tin whistles and all, this Irish wake of a song sounds like The Pogues meeting the E Street Band.

For my money, however, the best song on the album is the slow, melancholy, minor key waltz, "Jack of All Trades."  This, I would suggest, is one of the best songs he has written in the last 25 years.  As the title suggests, it portrays an aging working man who must make ends meet doing odd jobs, yet consoles his wife with the promise that "we'll be all right," hoping against hope that "we'll start caring for each other like Jesus said we might."  Yet his inner frustration ends up rearing its ugly head when he confesses, "If I had a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight."  Gracing this song, along with its achingly beautiful melody, are a deceivingly simple trumpet solo by Curt Ramm and a closing, slow-burn guitar solo by Tom Morello.  This is simply a marvelous song.

Springsteen, by his own admission, is a lapsed Catholic.  This has not stopped him from utilizing biblical imagery and themes heavily in his work, from 1978's blistering "Adam Raised a Cain" straight through to the present work.  And his work carries the unmistaken note of eschatology, though obviously of the secular sort.  Listening once again, after a few years' time, to the lyrics of "Land of Hopes and Dreams," I was struck by his cataloguing of the riders on the train to his mythical land: "This train ... carries saints and sinners/this train ... carries losers and winners/this train ... carries whores and gamblers/this train ... carries lost souls/I said this train ... carries broken hearted/this train ... thieves and sweet souls departed/this train ... carries fools and kings/this train ... all aboard."  That just about includes everybody—not only the winners this world celebrates, but the losers, who so often comprise the human detritus of our civilization, as well. 

As a Christian, I am immediately reminded of St. Paul's remarkable words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11: "Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."  There is a land of hope and dreams that is not mythical, and to which losers, whores, gamblers, and lost souls—and that means all of us—are invited.  I have no hope and faith in any human attempt, whether from the left or the right, to make things better in this world.  It is the kingdom of God alone that offers the hope for wholeness and community that humankind craves.  How sad it is, then, that so many of us who carry that kingdom's banner neglect to manifest the kingdom's priorities, preferring instead to enable and champion the causes of the very community-destroyers Bruce so devastatingly excoriates in this fine album.

Album Rating:  ««««


  1. I have been eagerly awaiting this review, and I am now satisfied. Thank you. I also seem to be drawn back again and again to Jack of All Trades.

  2. I'll have to take a listen. I've felt that in recent years Bruce has become a parody of himself. . . unfortunately the real mirror image of his outrageously funny and self deprecating takes on the Jimmy Fallon show recently.

    Still think his best album is The Wild and the Innocent . . . Born to Run, a close second. My opinion, of course.

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