Mar 22, 2012 Web Exclusive
On the heels of last fall's Occupy Wall Street protests arrives Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball, his most vibrant studio album of original material since 1984's Born in the U.S.A. Like his 2007 album, Magic, which cast a critical eye on the social and political climate of the Bush years, Wrecking Ball voices what Springsteen sees as crumbling values in America (signified by the wrecking ball of the title song), but this time the characters in the songs direct their ire toward fat-cat bankers and "robber barons...whose crimes have gone unpunished." In the folky, strings-laden sing-along, "Easy Money," a guy heads out on the town with his girl, bringing along a Smith & Wesson to take matters into his own hands. The narrator of the dirge "Jack of All Trades" initially appears to be more pragmatic and optimistic, repeatedly assuring his girl that they'll be all right, before unexpectedly confessing, "If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight."
Springsteen has visited this kind of desperation and agitation in his work before, most famously on 1982's Nebraska and again on 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad, both stark, sparsely arranged records. The writing on Wrecking Ball will disappoint those who favor the cinematically detailed characterizations and scenery of those records, but the music here is lively and diverse. Along with Springsteen's trademark brand of anthemic rock, Wrecking Ball congregates folk, gospel and Celtic sounds, plus a small measure of hip-hop. To varying degrees of success, those styles are furnished with drum and synth loops, sound effects, and samples (primarily Alan Lomax field recordings). The lightning-in-a-bottle moment is the Irish stomper "Death to My Hometown," wherein a penny whistle plays atop sacred harp vocals and a "We Will Rock You" beat, creating an enigmatically rousing aura around Springsteen's words of mourning and anger. The source of the sampled vocals is a 1959 recording of "The Last Words of Copernicus," performed by Velma Johnson and the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers. M.I.A. used the same recording for her track, "Tell Me Why." "Death to My Hometown" also includes the sound of an AK-47 firing. Is Springsteen an M.I.A. fan?
He and producer Ron Aniello played much of the core instrumentation and brought in numerous guest players, among them Tom Morello, whose guitar solos add dimension to Wrecking Ball's two slow numbers, "Jack of All Trades" and "This Depression." The gospel-imbued "Rocky Ground" features a Springsteen-penned verse rapped by Michelle Moore, which would have been far more alarming and seemingly compromising in the '90s, when Springsteen began to lose relevance as a hit-maker. Two decades after KRS-One blared on an R.E.M. song, Moore's subtly delivered verse comes off as neither edgy nor harebrained. However, "Rocky Ground"'s sample of the traditional, "I'm a Soldier in the Army of the Lord," channels Primitive Radio Gods more so than Moby's Play. Either way, both points of reference are more than a decade old.
For the last 20 years, Springsteen has had difficulty modernizing his sound. With the exception of his last hit single, 1993's understated "Streets of Philadelphia," his music that decade fell through the chasm created by Nirvana's Nevermind and U2's Achtung Baby. Subsequently (and perhaps consequently), in the 2000s, he's seemed fixated on the '90s, collaborating with the likes of Morello and previous producer Brendan O'Brien (Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine). Though Aniello's credits (Barenaked Ladies, Lifehouse, Candlebox) are discomforting, both he and O'Brien have stretched Springsteen's sound. It's just that Springsteen could have been taking these steps much earlier, after he broke from the E Street Band in 1989. He's never worked with a producer that's fresh off a seminal recording, which is a shame for an artist (and backing band) of such versatility.
In recent years, Springsteen has seemed more willing to leave flaws in his work exposed—the one-legged dog in 2008's "The Wrestler" being an example—possibly to open the songs to unintended inferences. Repetition, another Achilles' heel of late, is on full display on Wrecking Ball. "Easy Money" is an amalgam of earlier songs "Atlantic City," "If I Should Fall Behind," and "Into the Fire." Vocally, "Rocky Ground" also is reminiscent of "Into the Fire" and, musically, "One Step Up." Even assuming that these associations are lapses in the artist's memory to be called out by those who can pinpoint them, it's interesting that a new song with the refrain, "We've been traveling over rocky ground," should be reminiscent of an older song titled "One Step Up."
If Springsteen's narrative touch as a songwriter is no longer as sharp as it once was, it remains intact as an album-maker. Wrecking Ball's strength exists in its overarching narrative and sequencing—the relationships between the songs and their characters, and the shift in mood as the album progresses toward more spiritual themes. Repetition is more viable in this context.
"It's all happened before and it'll happen again," Springsteen sings on "Jack of All Trades." Echoing that sentiment in the title song, he repeats "hard times come and hard times go" five times, emphasizing the cyclical, Sisyphean nature of hardship. The burden of stones to carry and slopes to climb runs not only through Wrecking Ball ("Shackled and Drawn," "Rocky Ground") but was a recurring motif on the 9/11-inspired The Rising (the stair-ascending firemen of "Into the Fire" and "The Rising"—"On my back's a 60 pound stone") and can be traced at least as far back as 1978's "Darkness on the Edge of Town" ("Tonight I'll be on that hill 'cause I can't stop...I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost"). The imagery evokes Jesus' march toward Calvary, which is referenced in Wrecking Ball's closer, "We Are Alive," and also through a slip of the tongue on opener "We Take Care of Our Own," when Springsteen sings, alluding to Katrina, "There ain't no help, the Calvary stayed home." It's a mistake he's yet to correct in live performances, perhaps liking the implications.
While Springsteen was touring with the E Street Band in 2009, two of his longstanding haunts, Giants Stadium in his native New Jersey and The Spectrum in nearby Philadelphia, were scheduled for demolition. Prior to his final shows there, to toast the occasions, he penned what would become Wrecking Ball's boisterous, horns-galvanized title track. The song is sung from the point of view of Giants Stadium (but in a Southern accent for whatever reason), and its wrecking crew is challenged to take its best shot, epitomizing the defiance and indomitability of the characters throughout the album, who hold out hope that death and destruction will beget renewal.
"Land of Hope and Dreams," a fixture on the 1999 reunion tour with the E Street Band, is Wrecking Ball's penultimate track, appearing as a studio cut for the first time. It's a stirring anthem of rebirth, equality and inclusion—ideals that, on "We Take Care of Our Own," seemingly have gone missing. The track includes a robust solo (taken from a live recording) by late saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died from a stroke last June at age 69.
Springsteen, 62, has tackled the topic of mortality throughout his career, from "For You" in 1973 to "Streets of Philadelphia" to The Rising in 2002. On "We Are Alive," the scene is set in a graveyard where voices of the dead sing at night. One was killed during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, another in 1963 during the Civil Rights Movement, and a third, an immigrant, while crossing the desert "last year." Over twang-y western sounds that incorporate portions credited to "Ring of Fire," Springsteen sings in a hushed voice that recalls his earliest recordings, relaying the message of the souls of the buried: that they will rise to carry the fire and fight shoulder to shoulder. At once solemn and whimsical (it begins and ends with whistling), "We Are Alive," like "Death to My Hometown," is one of the weirdest tracks Springsteen has released on a studio album. That's a good thing, a testament to his sustaining vitality as an artist. (www.brucespringsteen.net)
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