Bruce Springsteen is pissed off.
Wrecking Ball finds The Boss reacting to America’s current financial crisis, cutting straight past the bullshit volley of party politics and Cable news-inspired biases, and to the heart of the matter. Springsteen very much sounds like a man who’s heard this country’s political parties take their half-hearted stabs at fixing America for too long without resolution and wants to make his point loud anc clear. (I am very familiar with this man.)
The Boss is no stronger to singing about social issues and the state of the union. He’s been singing about it since the 1970s with full-album punctuation marks along the way (Nebraska, We Shall Overcome). Some people still yearn for the days of Thunder Road, but Bruce isn’t that twentysomething troubadour anymore and while he still has an occasional knack for an inspiring anthem or visceral love song, his greatest strength is his empathy for the working class hero. But he’s rarely been this enraged before.
The lead track and first single, “We Take Care of Our Own,” was a good appetizer for the album, balancing the fairly benign musical arrangement with double-take lyrics that question the promise of the stars and stripes. But from there, the music and lyrics only get infinitely better. Bruce is much fiercer on “Death to My Hometown,” a Celtic march where the enemies wield no cannon balls, rifles or bombs, but financial ruin. “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,” sings Bruce of robber barons in business suits, a vicious faceless enemy.
On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen deftly mixes traditional rock with folk rock, gospel and soul, a blend of his best moments on recent E Street Band records as well as the vitality and verve of the Seeger Sessions. The latter has a greater influence on this new record (which is by no means an E Street Band album) and the album is better for it. America simply doesn’t need Bruce Springsteen singing “Queen of the Supermarket” right now. It needs the ferocious stomp of songs like “Shackled and Drawn,” which sounds like a forgotten outtake from Pete Seeger, and “Easy Money,” a rollicking Wall Street condemnation with an Irish folk arrangement. The Boss brings out the Irish influence again on “American Land,” a song developed during the Seeger Sessions but that has been an Encore staple for recent E Street tours as well. It retains it’s the dynamic energy of its live interpretations and is as vigorous a song as Bruce has written in decades.
The album slows things down some with “This Depression,” “We Are Alive” and “Jack of All Trades,” though the message suffers little for it. Punctuated with wailing guitar solos by kindred spirit Tom Morello and a moving vocal performance by The Boss himself, “This Depression” pleads for human connection in dark and desperate times. “We Are Alive” takes its cue from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, setting up around a campfire and building to a mariachi crescendo. It’s a brilliant musical finale to an album that dabbles in everything and a lyrical testament to the endurance of our spirit beyond our time on Earth. After a somber tale of devotion and resilience in troubled times, “Jack of All Trades” brings its desperate hero to a startling revelation by song’s end,
But don’t let the subject matter fool you into thinking this is a desperate and dark record along the lines of Nebraska. Even in its darkest moments, the music intends to inspire and many songs are meant to lift the downtrodden and reward their faith through the turmoil. “Wrecking Ball” and “Land of Hopes and Dreams” stand tall with the best of Springsteen’s songs of the last 25 years, brilliant anthems that face down evil and take the high road to a hopeful future. Appropriately, they both feature the late Clarence Clemons on saxophone, The Big Man’s only contributions to the record. Springsteen debuted “Wrecking Ball” in 2009 as a tribute to the soon-to-be-demolished Giants Stadium. At the time it felt like a fun throwaway song that only locals would get. But Springsteen has managed to turn it into a rallying cry of strength and willpower against a system intent on destruction. “Land of Hopes and Dreams” dates back even farther (it was played live starting in 1999) and here is tinged with larger shades of gospel. He sings, “Dreams will not be thwarted…Faith will be rewarded.” As furious and confrontational he is about an America that has betrayed its working class and a corrupt system that needs its own wrecking ball, Bruce Springsteen still believes in the good of man, the promise of one’s dreams and the hope the future might bring if we could just persevere and sing loud enough that we can no longer be ignored. That’s a Boss we could all use to listen to.
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