Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball: A Review

originally published March 8, 2012

There’s a scene in the film Titanic where Jack Dawson is having dinner with a bunch of millionaires on a ship that is just a few short hours away from depositing itself eternally into the North Atlantic, carrying out the same fate for rich and poor alike. But we know about that. No reason to discuss for the 16 kajillionth time the outcome or the conditions which led to the outcome. In fact, with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic quickly approaching, we’ll be subjected to the story top to bottom in the days ahead, just as we were in 1997 when the film was released, and suddenly everything Titanic was everywhere. But that scene…Jack gets up and tells Rose Dewitt, “Now let’s go to a real party,” and then leads her a few floors below down to Third Class where a mad, swirling, drunken, kaleidoscopic Irish dance is taking place into all hours of the night. These are the lower class peasants of the ship…and they’re having a much better time than the snobs upstairs. And they know how to party.

Initially, I wasn’t crazy about the preview of songs I’d heard in the weeks leading up to the release of Bruce Springsteen’s new album Wrecking Ball. But I wasn’t really paying attention. Initially, I heard sounds. I heard melodies. A lot of it sounded familiar as I shook my head, put my hands on my hips, pouted my lips, and like a little whiny bitch said, “Why does he have to put out an album now? He’s not ready. This is gonna be another waste of an album. Another Devils and Dust.” I kept hearing about this anger management thing that Bruce needed too. I didn’t pay any attention to that either. It’s now occurred to me that I was waiting to hear the entire album cohesively. And only then and there would I pour over the lyrics and get to know these new songs along with all this anger I was warned of by every headline that insisted that the Boss was about to release his “angriest album yet.”

Wrecking Ball is steeped in Americana. There is just as much of it as there is on Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft, maybe even more in terms of the familiarity of the melodies that are borrowed and re-written. I would use words like “stolen” but that word went out of style with Zeppelin. Besides, the entire album sounds like something else we’ve heard before. Bruce even rips himself off. A few weeks ago, I harped on how he’s gotten into this thing of re-writing the same songs he’s written over the last ten years. But seriously….Bruce Springsteen has written every song he’s going to write. Now he’s just perfecting the best ideas of the ones that aren’t “Born to Run” and “Rosalita.” And by “best ideas,” I mean the ones that always sounded like he was exploring roots music and in turn gave us the best moments on Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils and Dust, and the Seeger Sessions.

But now he’s doing it much bigger.

The kick drum on this album will blast your face off. But before it blasts your face off, it will kick you in the teeth so you bleed. Then it will blast your face off. This is the Seeger Sessions on steroids. But not really. He’s giving us original songs, and although the songs take heavily from much-established folk melodies, they are pure Springsteen. And the instruments are much more muscular. Sure he’s got brass and strings, but he’s also got Tom Morello. And did I mention the kick drum? It’ll give you whiplash.

Yes, it’s angry. It’s as angry as they said it would be. His harshest critics still play the card they’ve been playing ever since he pulled that stunt in the late 80s and moved out to L.A….that whole “Bruce is a millionaire trying to make people think he’s working class and how dare he write songs about people struggling when he himself is rich blah blah fucking blah.” But why would a guy with Springsteen’s background suddenly start bullshitting his audience? How could a guy who is out to put people on, turn out songs like “The Rising,” “American Skin,” “My City of Ruins,” and “Land of Hope and Dreams” and sing them with such conviction on a nightly basis that you gotta fear he’s gonna have a coronary right there on stage?

Fuck those people.

Why?

Because this is America in 2012. Things have gotten ugly.

And nobody is singing about it.

There was a time when the influential artists of the day reflected the times.

Not anymore.

That’s why we have Bruce Springsteen.

And that’s one of the reasons we keep him around.

This album beginning-to-end is a celebration. Sure it’s angry. Hell, it’s fucking pissed off at times. But this is a musical narrative of the Robber Barons on Wall Street who created the conditions under which America has fallen under, straight through to how the little guy is enduring through its consequences. This album is a “fuck you” to the greed that created the need for albums like Nebraska during Reagan’s 1980s. Its characters are real people who have lost everything, yet aren’t about to so much as flinch in the face of it. It is the sound of the downtrodden dancing circles around the 1%. This album beginning-to-end is that celebratory dance of the poor in Titanic where just around the corner is certain death, and not even the rich are exempt in the end.

But in the end, we are alive, and so Bruce reminds us in the album’s last song….over and over again until it becomes the mantra that we are left with, and the one thing we take from the experience of Wrecking Ball as we move back into our own personal everyday realities: “We are alive.” And if anything, the album is about survival and doing whatever it takes to keep pushing forward.

The production is flawless and astounding. For all that is going on within these songs, the album sounds great, and often sounds un-Bruce-like (the rap in “Rocky Ground,” Tom Morello’s guitar in “This Depression” and “Jack of All Trades”). I was also wary of Bruce recording studio versions of “Wrecking Ball” and “Land of Hope and Dreams ” having experienced them both on past tours in a live setting, and I have to say he’s not only done them both justice, but they sound phenomenal. It’s also taken 12 years and a studio version for me to realize that “Land of Hope and Dreams” just may be the best song Bruce has done in his post-Born in the U.S.A. output. I mean this thing has not only aged very well, but it is epic.   At this point, I can’t even bother ranking Wrecking Ball with the rest of the Springsteen collection. I give it five out of five stars and a 10 on a scale of 1-10. The only thing we could do without on this album is a little song called “You’ve Got It,” which is no better than one of those throw-away songs ala “All or Nothin’ All” or even worse, one of the outtakes on Disc 3 of Tracks. But ranking the album at this point is so beside the point and needless. Because like Nebraska, The Rising, and Magic, Wrecking Ball speaks to its times. It is a reflection of where we are as a country, and much more to the larger picture, as a human race. And that’s another reason why we keep Bruce Springsteen around. Because unlike many of his contemporaries and peers, his ongoing work is still vital and relevant. In other words, as someone who ran into him in a parking lot said to him shortly after 9/11, we need him.

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