The characters in the songs of Bruce Springsteen have been through a lot in their time on Earth, almost 40 years now. They spent their youth loitering on street corners and burning down highways, in search of some promise of freedom that rarely came to fruition. Coming to terms with that disappointment was complicated by financial calamities and temptations that led them astray, and those who came through it OK became disillusioned when their American Dreams turned out to be lies. As time passed, they dealt with failed romances, questionable wars, a terrifying national tragedy, and encroaching middle age.
Yet even after all of that, they have never sounded as desperate or as energized to do something about it as they do on Wrecking Ball, Springsteen’s mammoth new album. The Boss himself, responding to the personal challenge of losing his on-stage comrade Clarence Clemons last year, demonstrates on this record that the best antidote to the specter of death is to fight with every ounce of energy for your ideals and beliefs while you’ve still got the chance.
The speculation over Bruce’s new sound has been rampant since it was announced that a new album with minimal contribution from the E Street Band was forthcoming. Anyone expecting a stark, solo album in the vein of Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad is in for a shock; this record is big and bold, as befits the huge personalities that inhabit the songs.
Producer Ron Aniello and Springsteen have put together a unique combination of the old and new, an album where the banjos, fiddles, and horns of The Seeger Sessions coexist raucously with tape loops, samples, and, I’m not kidding you, a rap (by guest Michelle Moore on “Rocky Ground.”) Those still with Born To Run on constant replay might be taken aback, but the spirit hasn’t changed; it’s just packaged differently now.
Album-opener “We Take Care Of Our Own” comes closest to the classic Springsteen sound. It’s full of booming drums and chiming guitars, and it accentuates the theme running through the album that people in need of assistance have to help themselves and each other. “There ain’t no help,” The Boss sings fiercely. “The cavalry stayed home.”
From there, Bruce gives examples of those “good hearts turned to stone” on “Easy Money” and “Shackled And Drawn.” Both have the joyous feeling of hoedowns, but that’s only because these characters have to laugh to keep from crying. In “Easy Money,” the protagonist mentions the “fat cats” poised to wreak havoc, so he’ll take matters into his own hands: “I got a Smith & Wesson 38/I got a hellfire burning and I got me a date.”
“Shackled And Drawn” stomps its way through a tale of a guy “trudging through the dark of a world gone wrong,” a guy who is willing to work but can’t find any. Again, the enemies are broadly drawn (“It’s still fat and easy up on Banker’s Hill/Up on Banker’s Hill, the party’s going strong,”) which makes sense coming out of the mouths of these hardscrabble folks who don’t want to hear about subprime subtleties but nonetheless know something is seriously wrong.
Once upon a time, Bruce sang somberly about “My Hometown,” the threat to its existence at that point still only a threat. Wrecking Ball features “Death To My Hometown,” a song where, even though the damage has been done, there is no time wasted on wallowing. It’s a furious jig, with Springsteen affecting an Irish accent to sing about how the murderers came in silently (“No deathly thunder sounded”) and left unscathed (“Whose crimes have gone unpunished now.”) The Dad from the earlier song was dejected, taking his son on a sad tour of the place; you can now imagine that kid, all grown up and more pissed off than resigned to his fate as he gives advice to the his own son: “Send them robber barons straight to hell.”
Those violent thoughts come up unexpectedly within the songs, but they’re realistic considering the plight of these men. The stunning “Jack Of All Trades” is a dirge of a ballad, moving at a stately pace as the narrator lists all of his many skills and keeps insisting, “Honey, we’ll be all right.” Woozy brass sighs all around him, playing up the melancholy, but this guy isn’t going to sit around and mope: “If I had me a gun/I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.” Guest guitarist Tom Morello comes in at song’s end to blow everything away with an emotional solo.
Lest you think that the album is all us-against-them posturing, Springsteen takes the time to reveal the turmoil behind the toughness. “This Depression,” with Morello again on board squalling through the atmospherics and ghostly backing vocals, finds a character dealing with deep despair and trying to find a compassionate heart. “Rocky Ground” and “Land Of Hope And Dreams” search for substance, whether it comes from Biblical promises or old soul songs. These two songs strain too hard for uplift instead of it earning it, the album’s lone significant flaw, although the just-right sax solo from Clemons on “Land Of Hope And Dreams” will moisten a lot of eyes.
For all the hard times and bruised souls found on these 11 songs, what consistently shines through is the resiliency of the human spirit. The title track manages to transcend its original inspiration as a send-off for Bruce’s demolished home field of Giants Stadium and become a rallying cry for all those who’ve been beaten down, held back, or marginalized in some way by the passing years.
The nostalgia of its opening lines, “I was raised outta steel/Here in the swamps of Jersey/Some misty years ago” can’t help but make you wonder whatever became of Rosalita. But something deeper than nostalgia is at play here, when Bruce, speaking in the guise of the doomed stadium, tells its inhabitants to “Hold tight to your anger/And don’t fall to your fear.” At one point, he repeats the lines “Hard times come/Hard times go” over and over, each chord change representing another old wound purged by the power of the stirring music. It’s a classic Springsteen moment.
Like any great album, Wrecking Ball signs off with an unforgettable track. “We Are Alive” imagines that the dead still hold the courage they carried in life intact so that they can “stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.” “It’s only our bones that betray us in the end,” Springsteen sings, a sentiment somehow both comforting and haunting.
Throughout the album, whenever the lyrics knock these people down, the music raises them up and won’t allow them to be defeated. Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball is that rare release that manages to fulfill, defy, and exceed expectations all at once. When your own personal wrecking ball, be it a lost job or a lost loved one, comes crashing through, these songs will inspire you to stand tall, hold your head high, and send that infernal thing back from whence it came.