Bruce Springsteen just won’t let up. Since the 2002 release of his post 9/11 album, The Rising¸ the Boss has put out five studio albums and an assorted lot of live CD’s and DVD’s. Oh, and there were the elaborate box sets celebrating Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, the numerous tours, and the occasional stump speech for presidential candidates. After being pretty much dormant throughout the 1990’s, Springsteen has taken it upon himself to become a spokesman for the nation, which is exactly what he’s doing again on his masterful new album, Wrecking Ball.
If you were a fan of Springsteen’s last effort, the optimistic pop album, Working on a Dream, you’ll probably be disappointed. Wrecking Ball is cut from the same cloth as 2008’s Magic and its predecessor, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, that furious collection of folk songs he put out in 2006. Those two albums found the artist looking at the state of America and reflecting on the sorry state we’ve found ourselves in. Somehow, he still found a way to instill hope in those albums, something he’s always had a knack for doing. Wrecking Ball may be his most pointed group of songs since 1982’s Nebraska. However, just as he’s did on Born in the USA, the Jersey born artist uses his pop music sensibilities to draw you in with stirring melodies and gutsy vocals. Throughout Wrecking Ball, he and his group of musicians (which include several of the E Street Band) deliver festive songs that will have his fans thrusting your fist in the air. It’s only when listeners dig into the lyrics that they’ll find themselves shaking in anger or close to tears. Such is the gift of this great American artist.
The album opens with the anthem, “We Take Care of Our Own” directed straight at Washington DC, scolding those that are supposed to be running out country, but instead seem to be running it into the ground. The statement has two meanings in the song. On one hand, he’s applauding people for helping one another; on the other hand he’s admonishing those politicians who’ve forgotten their role of looking out for the poor and middle class. From there, Bruce and company take us on journey through hard times. The protagonist of “Easy Money” (a descendant of the guy from “Atlantic City”) decides that if the bankers can be crooks, he’ll be one, too. The man in “Shackled and Drawn” is doing his best to rise above hardship. The poignant ballad, “Jack of All Trades,” shows us the new working class; a person who works whatever odd job comes his way, whatever it takes to survive. The opening cycle of songs ends with the pissed off protest song, “Death to My Hometown.” This one completes a triptych of songs that began with the classic single, “My Hometown,” was brought up again in 1996’s “Youngstown” (from The Ghost of Tom Joad) and now has the people of that hometown ready to take arms against the fat cats who walk free after feeding on the flesh of the regular folk who fell for predatory schemes and have suffered the most thanks to war and the rising cost of living.
From there, Wrecking Ball takes a turn, beginning with the title track. Originally written about the demise of Giants Stadium, Springsteen uses it as a metaphor for the state of our country. “Hold tight to your anger/And don’t fall to your fears,” he sings, practically begging his fans to keep looking for the sun coming over the horizon. “Rocky Ground” returns to the hip-hop textures that Springsteen explored in “Streets of Philadelphia,” for a gospel infused number about people coming together during hard times. Again, Springsteen is holding out for hope when he says, “There’s a new day coming.”
“Land of Hope and Dreams” is one of Springsteen’s best, and for longtime fans, most familiar anthems. He premiered the song in 1999 and showcased it during his reunion tour with the E Street Band (it was even released on two compilations). Used here, in a different arrangement that features a choir and some electronic beats, the song is the perfect number to bring the Wrecking Ball toward it’s resolution. In it Springsteen informs his audience that on the train he rides, the one called America, everyone is supposed to be welcome, everyone is supposed to be there for each other… to take care of their own. Winners, loser, bankers, whores, everyone. That’s the country he’s always believed in. It’s because he loves America and the idea of America so much that he’s willing to piss off others to speak out about what’s wrong with the nation now. “Land of Hope and Dreams” is also significant as the final appearances of Clarence Clemons on a Springsteen album. It’s a beautiful farewell to the Big Man.
The album’s coda is a dust bowl ballad, “We Are Alive,” that uses the trumpet melody from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Is this lift on purpose? Damn right it is. Who better to take the place of the man in black as the voice of the downtrodden than Springsteen? At 62, he continues to not only set an example for younger generations of rockers, but also lead the way for his contemporaries in quality and content. Some people may bitch that the album doesn’t sound like his older material, or that he shouldn’t be using samples or have attempted a short rap in the middle of “Rocky Ground.” I applaud him for continuously trying to expand his musical horizons. Wrecking Ball is a triumph in content and in the studio (the album was produced by Ron Aniello with Springsteen). More importantly, once Bruce and the E Street Band hit the road, the material should help make for some of his most memorable concerts.