CK Retro Review: Wrecking Ball by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: May 29, 2014
After the deaths of longtime E Street Band members of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, it was hard to imagine how Bruce Springsteen would move forward and what that would sound like. 2012’s Wrecking Ball was the answer, a bold, aggressive album featuring an ambitious sound that combined old-timey instruments with forward-looking production techniques. Springsteen found lyrical inspiration in the brazen thievery of large corporations and bad behavior of politicians, sounding a note that was far more confrontational than complaining. Although the album bogs down a bit with the quasi-gospel stuff on the second half of the disc, Wrecking Ball manages to hit the old themes of responsibility, respect, and resiliency with renewed vigor and fire. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “You’ve Got It”- If the song were a knockout, I could accept Bruce trying to shoehorn it into an album where it doesn’t quite fit. But it’s pedestrian at best, so it’s hard to figure what it’s doing here. Were it another artist than Springsteen, I’d say that some meddling record company exec got involved. But it’s not, so this one is head-scratcher.
10. “Rocky Ground”- Springsteen basically takes the chord changes from the Tunnel Of Love gem “One Step Up,” adds a hip-hop flavored rhythm, and, voila, you’ve got a gospel lament. Even with the rap section, this feels like the most tentative move on the album.
9. “This Depression”- This one could have sunk into the same rut as “Rocky Ground,” but it sustains its downcast mood more effectively. For one, Springsteen’s vocal is more stirring for being more restrained. In addition, the recording has a little more life, thanks to Tom Morello’s moaning guitar lead and drums that sound like they were inspired by Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks.”
8. “Land Of Hope And Dreams”- I know a lot of people love this one, but, to me, it’s always felt like it had to grind to get where it needs to go. Springsteen’s lyrics, while admirable, don’t really transcend like some of his other stuff, while the uplift here seems forced. I will say that this studio version improves matters from previously released live version; it’s a bit looser and more free-flowing. And it was a nice touch to include Clarence’s sax in the mix. Those moments when he blows through the proceedings speak as eloquently here as anything Bruce puts on the page.
7. “Shackled And Drawn”- Some people might have a problem with Springsteen boiling things down to such base terms as he does here, but he’s writing in the voice of a character who would likely see things in such an uncomplicated light. The music is the real star here anyway, a stomping hoedown that captures the indomitable spirit of this down-on-his-luck working man.
6. “Easy Money”- If you can’t beat ‘em,…. The narrator of “Easy Money” doesn’t rend his garments and shout at the heavens about rampant financial inequality. He just straps on his gun, pulls his woman along with him, and hits the town for a little larceny. And the music, a celebratory jig with chanted backing vocals and thunderous instrumental support, makes sure he has fun on his way. The implication is that greed begets greed, until all that’s left of society is a smoldering heap.
5. “We Take Care Of Our Own”- This was just the right tone-setter for the album, a statement of purpose that reestablished Springsteen as a fist-pumping rock and roller. Martial drums, a killer riff, and vocals so intense and focused they can bore a hole in you if you get too close to the speakers: That’s how you do an album-opener and first single. Springsteen’s narrator isn’t so much disillusioned as he is clear-eyed, or, as the man once sang, he has his facts learned. Notice how he repeats the final question “Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” America The Beautiful? Not in his depiction. You could hear that title refrain as the empty promises of the powers that be, or you can hear it as Springsteen rallying his listeners to look out for each other because no one else is doing it for them.
4. “We Are Alive”- After so many songs on the album revealed man’s inhumanity to man, the closing track takes the perspective of the ghosts who watch everything going on and have every right to call us to the carpet when we slip up. Taking a Johnny Cash hit and juicing it up with an emotional chorus, Springsteen suggests that the sacrifices made and torment suffered by those who have passed on are somehow dishonored by the messed-up world the living have created. A brilliantly counterintuitive closer which proves that Springsteen’s knack for just the right finishing touch hasn’t diminished a bit.
3. “Death To My Hometown”- Odd how some of the testier narratives are married to music that can be best described as celebratory. It’s as if Springsteen is saying that there is triumph just in identifying these crimes, calling out the perpetrators, and letting them know that we know their true nature and breadth of their insidious behavior. Or maybe in this case, he’s using the music to gird the characters’ loins for the fight they have ahead of them to avenge their town’s demise at the hands of the “robber barons.” The subject matter means that no one need worry that Springsteen has mellowed as he heads to Social Security age, but even more encouraging is that songs like this prove his ability to write and perform inspiringly and insightfully about his anger hasn’t abated.
2. “Jack Of All Trades”- Someone just pointed out to me in an interview that the arpeggio that underpins the entire song reminds them of “O Holy Night.” I had never thought of that, but I think Springsteen definitely knew that the backing would seem benign, all the better to undercut it as the song progressed. The lyrics perform a similar trick, starting out as a kind of resume before emerging as a deeper castigation of the eternal haves and have-nots imbroglio. The narrator’s faith that things will be “all right” transforms from a believable reassurance to empty placation of his beloved. The funereal horns give way to an eerie near-silence as Springsteen delivers this shocker: “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.” Morello’s final solo tries to clear the air, but once you’ve been reduced to contemplations of violence, nothing could ever be “all right” again.
1. “Wrecking Ball”- When the themes you write about tend to stay consistent from release to release, and the songs are driven by the same kind of integrity each time out, it allows the material to malleably fit into seemingly odd places. So it is that a song written about a football stadium somehow works as the perfect centerpiece for this album of material that would seem to have no surface connection to it. Anyway, the football stadium is a stand-in for all of us, the way we age and are marginalized and eventually get leveled to dust. So do you cower when that implement of destruction comes hurtling toward you? Or do you stick out your chin, puff out your chest, and make sure that infernal thing remembers just whom it faced? There’s no doubt what Springsteen wants us to do.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, and pre-orders are available now.)