Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
Record Label: Columbia Records
Release Date: March 6, 2012
Seventeenth studio album.
That’s what Wrecking Ball is. It’s the 17th album that Bruce Springsteen has gone into a studio to record. Despite his great success in every decade since the 1970s, the 62-year-old Springsteen has never once decided to rest on any laurels. With two of the most important albums in rock and roll’s history under his belt, every piece of music since he got back together with his E Street Band has been more of a pleasant surprise than a piece of expected greatness. In 2002, when Springsteen put out The Rising, his first work with the E Street Band in over a decade, he was inspired by the events of Sept. 11. In 2007, Magic was an electric shock back into the driver’s seat, and 2009’s Working On A Dream took the momentum of the Magic world tour and turned it into another solid effort.
A lot has changed for Springsteen and the band since 2009, though. The passing of an original E Streeter, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, left Springsteen, the E Street Band and fans worldwide in grief. Many wondered whether Springsteen would tour again; many wondered whether another record would ever be written. They were right to wonder, as Clemons wasn’t just a part of the band, but one of Springsteen’s best friends. But despite emotional and physical setbacks – the physical being Father Time himself – 2012 is shaping up to be yet another year that adds onto The Boss’ legend. And it all begins with Wrecking Ball.
To judge Wrecking Ball as a singular piece of art is something that must be taken with a grain of salt. Many Springsteen fans are diehard (to say the least), and these long-time fans will understand the timely context of specific parts of this album. While hardly serving as an encapsulation of Springsteen’s career, Wrecking Ball draws on albums that have preceded it and feels like it’s been about a decade in the making. It will take whatever bittersweet feelings came along with Working On A Dream, perhaps one of the more poorly received albums in terms fan reaction in Springsteen history, and shove them into a far corner of one’s mind.
The name of the record comes to life on the first track, “We Take Care of Our Own.” A thundering kick drum that will pace the entire album is introduced along with prevalent handclaps, and right away, the pounding rhythm will refresh listeners who thought Working On A Dream lacked power. Wrecking Ball proves to be as powerful as its name suggests from the get-go. A chorus of rousing political relevance (“Wherever this flag’s flown / We take care of our own”) is sure to make the song be mistaken as a political anthem (see: “Born In the U.S.A.”), when in fact, the verses show an America that Springsteen has painted as lost and in need of help. "I've been lookin' for the map that leads me home … The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone” … “From the shotgun shack to the Superdome / We yelled "help" but the cavalry stayed home / There ain't no-one hearing the bugle blown.” This is hardly an inspirational idea of Americans taking care of each other, but instead takes the time to instill imagery of people in need of help.
The introductory track confirms what a lot of writers have been saying about Wrecking Ball early on – it’s as politically charged as Springsteen gets. The slow-tempo “Jack of All Trades” describes a man who is willing to do whatever work he can find in order to keep his head above water, over something that we’ve never heard from Springsteen in the form of electronic drums. In direct contrast, the aggressive, Irish-inspired “Death To My Hometown” finds Springsteen, in his best Irish impression, weaving a story about a town stricken with unemployment and hard times. The chilling ambience behind “This Depression” paves the way for another sober tale, but whatever monotony that may be caused by another slow song is relieved with an excellent guitar solo. “Rocky Ground,” with its cry of “…pray that hard times, hard times, come no more,” continues to reinforce Springsteen’s idea of America today. The title track, originally written for the concert that Springsteen played to close out Giants Stadium, provides a classic working man’s chorus with its refrains of, “Hold tight to your anger / And don’t fall to your fear” and, “Hard times come / And hard times go / Just to come again.”
Never known to back down from his social commentary, Springsteen sings about Americans from the idea that the country has been misled by big businesses and is down on its luck. As we should expect from any of The Boss’ work, however, there are shreds of hopefulness littered around the record – most notably, the resurfaced “Land of Hopes and Dreams.” As always, Springsteen’s lyrics don’t try to paint a grand mural of America as a whole, but instead tell the stories of everyday people. Almost 40 years after the release of Born To Run and almost 30 years after Born In the U.S.A., Springsteen is still America’s greatest blue-collar storyteller. Although he claims that the Occupy Wall Street movement inspired some of Wrecking Ball, and although listeners will surely find more than one anthem to rally behind, most of this album was written before anybody occupied anything. As has happened in the past, Springsteen’s music and lyrics simply sound better and seem more relevant on a national scale when America is in a recession and needs a Springsteen record.
From a musical standpoint, fans will find Springsteen trying out a variety of new sounds on the album – which is pretty spectacular, considering just how long he’s been writing popular music. In fact, the electronic drums that appear on multiple tracks are just one new characteristic that Springsteen brings out on Wrecking Ball. As I wrote before, “Death To My Hometown” features a ballsy Irish tinge to it, while “Rocky Ground” takes on a female guest vocalist who delivers a rap verse. The revamped “Land of Hopes and Dreams” – which comes across as an homage to Clemons, as the song, which was originally recorded in 2002 as a b-side to The Rising, is one of only two tracks to feature a saxophone in it – highlights what has become a bit of a commonality for Springsteen recently in the form of a backing Gospel choir. As a whole, Wrecking Ball is Springsteen’s most risky and obscure move since The Seeger Sessions.
For every new characteristic that presents itself, there are also familiar undertones on Wrecking Ball. The strings in the background of multiple songs, like the sonically lifting “Easy Money,” are reminiscent of The Rising. Backing vocals seem to be taken from styles presented on Working On A Dream. As a whole, a folky vibe throughout the course of Wrecking Ball seems to be what might have come to fruition if The Seeger Sessions or Devils & Dust were recorded as original, full-band material. The latter part of this point is especially true for the phenomenal closer, “We Are Alive.” The album plays across as a melting pot of Springsteen’s work over the last decade, and that’s not a bad thing – Wrecking Ball is the best album from Springsteen and the E Street Band since The Rising.
Trying to give Wrecking Ball its own spot or ranking among the all-time Springsteen records would be a child’s game. While the lyricism throughout the album is certainly rousing, it does prove to be much more broad than his past work. A song like “This Depression” can be so widely applied that it seems at times as though Springsteen tried too hard to appeal to everyone. This proves to be a detriment, albeit a small one. The musicianship and songwriting is easily on par with Magic and exceeds the output on Working On A Dream, and as a whole, Wrecking Ball stacks up considerably with The Rising, which to this day I consider a top-5 Springsteen album. Wrecking Ball is recommended listening for anyone who enjoys true American poetry, rock and roll done right, or a healthy dose of political justice.
Now that i got the Thomas love Bruce joke out of the way, and read the review I gotta say this is a well written review. Album is pretty good. Probably top 7 Bruce albums for me. Can't wait for the IZod Center show
Didn't expect to love it as much as I did. Springsteen is my favorite but I've had a hard time defending some of the stuff he's put out of late. None of it has been absolutely terrible, just so boring, and Springsteen is the last person I want to see fall off his pedestal. But this a revival like no other... this is nearly a perfect album. This isn't the Springsteen I missed, this is the Springsteen I was waiting for throughout the last ten years, the one who found the perfect balance between legendary rock star and musical genius but refused to let himself rest comfortably...
this just might be a new classic. Ask me in five years. I have faith.
And don't forget the two bonus tracks. Soooooo good. Love that he is not afraid to experiment. The man is a legend for a reason, and Wrecking Ball is a testament to that. It also happens to be his best record since Born In The U.S.A. in my opinion.