Shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
We have nothing but admiration for Bruce Springsteen, and it's been that way for 38 years. A new album from him is like a visit from a close childhood friend every few years, and the significance of what's said during such a visit usually unfolds slowly over a long period of time. And so with no concert-going opportunity on the immediate horizon, and a lot of other things to think about, we were in no hurry to sit down with Springsteen’s latest CD, Wrecking Ball. We heard a snip or two of it on the internet, but did not actually play the CD until last week. That made us about six weeks late to the party.
We've now been through it several times, and if ever we were going to review it, now seems like the time. Our discussion of Springsteen's music is never up to the task – the subject is too loaded for us – but we write about nearly everything else on this site, for better or for worse, and so we may as well give it a try. This music matters a lot to us.
Wrecking Ball finds its author, now 62 years old, surveying a depressed America. Two of his bandmates, who were with him from his early days as a brash Jersey Shore rocker, have passed away. He's preached tirelessly for decades on behalf of liberal causes, and for all his efforts, he has been mightily disappointed by the country that the politicians of his generation, our generation, have created. He is cranky and lashing out.
Lyrically, it's a strong outing. As usual, the liner of the CD contains all the lyrics, and flipping through them, one can find quite a few instant classic lines and stanzas. The first several tracks -- what would be Side 1 on an LP -- contain blast after blast against the wealthiest Americans, on behalf of the downtrodden middle class. Singled out for particularly nasty venom are the bankers.
These are not new themes for Springsteen -- he's been on the bossman's case since the Nebraska album 30 years ago -- but this time there's a sharp edge to the message. And not a lot of hope. On two tracks, the narrators mouth words of mild optimism, but in the end talk about getting a gun and killing someone, maybe themselves.
The thousand-pound gorilla in the room is that Springsteen is no longer a scrawny kid straight off the Asbury Park boardwalk. These days he's filthy rich. He probably clears more than a half-million dollars a show, and if he's managed his earnings well, his net worth has got to be well into nine figures. They don't call him The Boss for nothing. When he incites people to go rub out the rich, it's more than a little ironic. He's probably got all kinds of security around himself and his family. But Springsteen's fans, most of whom are decidedly not rich, are happy to shrug this off. It's as though the songs are more for them than for him.
The second half of the album takes a mild turn to the light. The title track is a tribute to the old Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, and it's a celebration of both the history of the place and its future. As he did on the Rising album, Reverend Bruce then marches into gospel territory, promising salvation in the next world. A studio version of "Land of Hopes and Dreams" is included; long an upbeat closer in Springsteen concerts, it benefits from being recorded in a studio, where one can hear oneself think. And the album ends with a remarkable track, in which the dead speak and profess eternal life.
The material is beyond engaging; it's almost exhausting. Except for a lone throwaway song about a lover, there's not a lot of fun being had anywhere from start to finish. If there's one phrase to describe these poems, it's deadly serious.
Musically, however, there's a lot less here than meets the ear. The structure of most of the tunes is pretty simple. And the sounds are familiar, maybe overly so, to those who already own and prize the Springsteen catalog. The opening track, "We Take Care of Our Own," is characteristic of his hard rockers from the last decade; it's got lots of bombast, even a couple of faint hooks, and it's on the verge of greatness. But in the end it seems somehow incomplete. It would greatly benefit from another bridge, or a second part, or something. ("Radio Nowhere," on the otherwise splendid Magic CD, was the same way.) One shouldn't expect a full-blown "Jungleland" or "Kitty’s Back" from E Street any more, but something more than a metronome with a key change would be great. One listens to a generic melody like "Easy Money," and the song’s title seems appropriate in more senses than one. (The same thought popped into our mind with "This Depression," which is so dark that it veers into Toni Childs territory.) These days, the absence of the late Clarence Clemons's saxophone solos makes the plainness more evident.
Wrecking Ball contains many echoes of past albums, especially Tunnel of Love, The Rising, and Nebraska, in the melodies and arrangements. By the third listen, we were singing the old songs on top of the new ones that have borrowed from them. And Springsteen delivers several of the protest numbers more or less as Irish drinking songs -- one with fiddle and tin whistle and all. He is definitely more enamored of that genre than we are. If we want dark Celtic whisky rock, we already have Richard Thompson, or Tom Waits.
Two of the tracks toward the end of the collection break new ground, and for our money they should be the takeaways from the CD. "Rocky Ground" is a revival number that includes a rap written by Springsteen and spoken by singer Michelle Moore; it’s also got a direct quotation from a 1940's gospel song "I'm a Soldier in the Army of the Lord." We've noted since The Rising in 2002 that Springsteen's late work is directly religious in many respects, but it's the rap segment in this track that brings us back for repeat plays.
The finale, "We Are Alive," is in a class by itself. Sung by the residents of a graveyard, it's a testament to Springsteen's professed belief in the hereafter. The intriguing subject matter of the track is greatly enhanced by its gradual drift into a genuine cowboy song. Springsteen has included hints of country and western music in several of his past albums, but by the end of this one, it's all-out Grand Old Opry, with a banjo and a Johnny Cash lead guitar. Held up next to some of the weaker pub crawl numbers early on in the CD, it's a real gem. We'd be really interested in a whole album of this kind of tune. The whole world would be.
Maybe that album is coming in a little while, when Springsteen is a little less angry, a little less depressed, and a little less lost. But whatever got into him with the banjo and the Johnny Cash, may there be more of it. And keep the mariachi trumpets. Seriously.
Well, as usual, we've written a lot of words and haven't even gotten close to capturing what's going on in Bruceland. If we had to give this album a rating on a scale of 4 stars, we'd give it a 3. People are calling it Springsteen's best work in many years, but we’d put it behind Magic (2007) and further behind The Rising. (Then again, it’s way ahead of Working on a Dream (2009), which we found to be kind of a dud.) Some of Wrecking Ball will grow on us; Springsteen albums almost always do. And we're deeply grateful that the guy's still around doing what he does. We wish him many more years in which to do it.