Record Review: Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
Nearly four decades after his first major studio album, Bruce Springsteen has released a testament to his musical and storytelling genius. Wrecking Ball trails only Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town in the Springsteen discography, delivering greater musical scope than Nebraska or Born in the U.S.A., sharper focus than The River or The Rising, more refined artistry than Greetings from Asbury Park or The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle, and more depth of purpose than Tunnel of Love. Springsteen’s newest album represents the artistic culmination of an elite musician’s forty-year career. Perhaps more significantly, however, Wrecking Ball is the definitive musical response to a devastating era in America’s history: the financial crisis that the western world in recent years.
In a musical climate notable for the “death of the album,” Springsteen has created a complete offering. Wrecking Ball is a classic album in which every song is integral to the whole, each track serving a distinct purpose, interacting with the tracks surrounding it to form a coherent work that progresses from the hardship of today to the promise of salvation.
Overture: The album opens with its first single and its weakest song: “We Take Care of Our Own.” Wrecking Ball is not a perfect album—what is?—and it suffers from one weakness: repetitiveness. The songs do not sound alike, but, with the possible exception of “Rocky Ground,” every song possesses a degree of monotony, in which verse, chorus, bridge, and coda all blend into one another. Springsteen started doing this on the album Magic. Fortunately, unlike those on Magic, the songs on Wrecking Ball sound incredible. Each song is passionate and rich. The lyrics and the musical arrangements infuse what would be one-dimensional tracks with energy, and each track forms a facet of the dynamic whole album. “We Take Care of Our Own” possesses the positive and negative traits of the rest of the album. Pounding drums, keyboards, and bells drive this anthem. The song just never reaches the emotional heights that the album’s other songs reach. In the overall scheme of the album, however, “We Take Care of Our Own” perfectly fulfills its purpose as an overture, introducing the listener to a scene full of frustration, disappointment, anger, and promise. The very words of the title remain ambiguous, as it is never clear how they are intended: as admonishment of a country that has failed to take care of its own or as a stubborn inkling of hope that we will once more.
Ambition: “Easy Money” may be the album’s best track. Opening with more pounding drums, the song quickly becomes a folk-infused rock song with a chorus of vocal support. One of the album’s most welcome features is a set of songs—”Easy Money,” “Shackled and Drawn,” and “Death to My Hometown”—that clearly echo the folk style of We Shall Overcome while staying true to the Boss’s rock roots. On its surface, the song is about naive ambition, as the narrator is “going on the town now, looking for easy money.” That quest has already failed, and the narrator tries to kill away his fury, to bring his “hellfire” to the “fat cats” that crushed his aspirations.
Frustration: Another rock-folk song, “Shackled and Drawn,” addresses the frustration of the victims of the crisis. The narrator pleads, “Let a man work, is that so wrong?” Today, it is. Denied that opportunity, the narrator is shackled and drawn, while “it’s still fat and easy up on bankers’ hill.” The most direct song of a direct album, Bruce observes the economic disparity that has developed, with the poor worker left with nothing but to “keep singing this song.”
Faltering Hope: The first beautiful song of the album (yes, multiple songs on this album can fairly be described as “beautiful”), “Jack of All Trades” features an often repeated phrase: “We’ll be alright.” This reassurance comes again and again, but never convincingly. Instead, the narrator sounds as though he’s trying to convince himself more than the listener, finally yielding to his frustration—”If I had me a gun, I’d find me the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight”—before the song-ending guitar solo, performed by Tom Morello. The song is dark, the song is painful, the song is gorgeous.
Devastation: “Just as sure as the hand of God, they brought death to my hometown.” That sums it up. “Death to My Hometown” is an Irish rock song about the destruction wrought by the crisis. The musical style is particularly apt considering that few western countries suffered as much as Ireland in recent years. The pieces of this song come together to form a great rock song: more pounding drums, more voices chanting non-words, more fiddle. The music makes for an upbeat rock track, but the lyrics convey the devastation brought by the “greedy thieves … whose crimes have gone unpunished.” They brought death to our hometown, boys.
Depression: “This Depression” is another beautiful song with a straightforward theme: depression. Following the events chronicled in “Death to My Hometown,” we encounter a narrator who has “never [been] this low” and “never felt so weak.” He is desperate, pleading for love. The song never moves beyond the sadness, but it does provide a hint of what’s to come: “now the morning sun, the morning sun is breaking.”
Resilience/defiance: The album starts to shift here. We’ve had destruction and loss, we’re at the nadir, and the climb needs to begin. The first step back up is “Wrecking Ball,” my favorite song of the album, a song written for the demolition of Giants Stadium but with much deeper themes. The song takes root in a culture of sport. It’s the American story, every fall Saturday and Sunday, every summer night. Dreams, childhood, identity, culture, all built on sports teams. “Born to Run” told the story of trying to escape from the world. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” showed the reaction to the failed escape, a struggle against the world while trying to establish a place within it. “Born in the U.S.A.” is a return to the once-known world, discovering it changed and working to readjust to it. This album starts when that world has collapsed, when the foundations have drifted away into rust, when all our “hopes and desires have been scattered to the wind.” How do we move on? Reaching back into the memory of that past, Bruce takes a stand and he invites us to stand next to him in defiance. When hard times come. When hard times go. Bring on your wrecking ball.
Love: We’ve committed to standing up despite the frustration, the devastation, and the depression. But defiance will only take us so far. So Bruce harkens back to 1987′s “Tunnel of Love” for a song about finding a companion with whom to rise from the hard times. “You’ve Got It” starts bare bones, with an acoustic guitar and a lone, serenading voice. Then the piano chords and the solo, blues guitar. A simple drum rhythm follows before the full arrangement enters. The Wall Street Journal described it well: “It’s as if Mr. Springsteen is seated across the room, tossing off a lusty blues for friends who decided to join in.”
Reflection: The most experimental of the songs on an experimental album, “Rocky Ground” is one I keep returning to. Gentle vocals at the beginning run over quiet and equally gentle instrumentation. Bruce does more singing on this song than any other on the album, and the alternation of the female-sung chorus between a solo and a group of singers further emphasizes the lyrical focus of the song. The song is beautiful and invites reflection. The end of the journey approaches. As a “new day [is] coming,” this song provides the opportunity to look back on the rocky ground behind us.
Hope: The first minute of “Land of Hope and Dreams” blows me away. The song enters in waves, opening with a solo voice, expanding to include more vocalists and the hint of a melody. A drum beat, then, about thirty seconds in, explosion. The guitar kicks in, pushed by the drag of a snare and the pounding of a bass drum. This song appeared on Live in New York City over a decade ago, but the studio cut delivers on another level. The explosion of sound at the beginning loudly announces the arrival of the train headed for the land of hope and dreams. The tremendous saxophone solo of the late “Big Man” Clarence Clemons fits particularly well on a track proclaiming hope for “sweet souls departed” and the promise that “dreams will not be thwarted.”
Salvation: One last song. Five minutes and forty-four seconds to finish a masterpiece. The album has moved from devastation to defiance to hope. The final song realizes the hope of a new day. I expected something more majestic and grandiose. Instead, “We Are Alive” trails only “You’ve Got It” in its feeling of simplicity. No song on Wrecking Ball, however, surpasses the closer in beauty. It features a folk melody with horns and guitars that echo Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” The voices of the departed return for a track about salvation, as “souls and spirits rise,” standing “heart to heart.” It’s a simple-sounding song that perfectly ends an exceptional album. The music rises at the end before abruptly cutting away, leaving the listener with the sounds of whistles to comfort him as he realizes what he long feared: Wrecking Ball has concluded.
I expected this album to be terrible. I’m of the new generation of Springsteen fans, joining the following with The Rising, Bruce’s first great album of my conscious life (Tunnel of Love was released in the year I was born). I was enraptured after The Rising tour and have seen Springsteen several times since. Magic was a major disappointment, though: no bad songs, but nothing really worth remembering either, a completely mediocre offering. Working on a Dream may be the closest Springsteen came to a bad album (supermarkets and bank robbing babies?). Having heard the second performance of the song “Wrecking Ball” at Giants Stadium, I was surprised that Springsteen named his album after it. I took “Wrecking Ball” to be a throw away song, created as a novelty to say goodbye to a couple of iconic Springsteen venues (Giants Stadium and, soon after, the Spectrum). “We Take Care of Our Own” did not make me any more hopeful.
Then I started listening to the songs as they streamed each day. And then I could not wait to sit down and hear this whole album. The music is fresh, complex, and stunning. The lyrics tell the story of an era. Bruce has created something incredible. The premieres of “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” preceded me; I feel privileged to listen to Wrecking Ball upon its release. Bruce has reaffirmed his status as a legend. He is America’s musical voice, and Wrecking Ball is the story of America today.
Bruce Springsteen — Wrecking Ball. Produced by Ron Aniello and Bruce Springsteen. Released March 6, 2012, by Columbia Records.