There was a time not too long ago where I felt Bruce Springsteen no longer spoke for me. It is not that I didn't think that his voice was earnest, it's just that I had a hard time believing someone this fortunate and wealthy could encapsulate my experience. Listening to his seventeenth studio album Wrecking Ball it's evident that Springsteen has found a way to sneak inside the psyche of the disenfranchised and speak up for them. Wrecking Ball is a catalyst allowing us to stand in someone else's shoes and allowing pain and dread to flow through our veins. It is a vast and concentrated work best heard in its entirety and one of the few all-encompassing diatribes on the corruption of our world since Green Day's American Idiot. Wrecking Ball isn't so much a album filled with his best songs so much as it's a body of work that will psychologically wallops you. Musically it is one of his most ambitious albums fusing Celtic-countrified strumming, soulful excursions, hip-hop beats and surging guitars that as a collective whole yields several surprises. Producer Ron Aniello lends a modern touch to the record where the stinging arrangements help ignite Springsteen's message.The lead single, "We Take Care of Our Own", on its own feels like a paint-by-number exercise in songwriting, but alongside ten other fierce compositions it provides the first scene of his cinematic vision with its rumbling drum opening and call-to-arms chorus. "Easy Money" and "Shackled and Drawn" musically hearken back to depression era jaunty jigs which permeate tales of wry heartache where times are tough but the music makes the bitter pills easier to swallow. However, the album suddenly shifts to a place where dour prophecies prevail. "Jack of All Trades" is a ballad of solidarity and ache ("I'm a Jack of all trades, we'll be alright"). The repeating chorus is a vital ingredient of survival, restoring confidence in a shattered psyche and it's sung with such solemnity, you believe everything will be all right. "Rocky Ground" features a rap mid-song (by Michelle Moore) and establishes new ground as Springsteen created a track with loops and gospel soul. It's the most ambitious track on the record. In contrast to this brave new ground achieved, "We Are Alive" channels the spirit of Johnny Cash in a subdued but uplifting folk hymn that closes the record.
The centerpiece of the album, "Death to My Hometown" is a stinging portrait of betrayal. Highlighted with a booming martial drumbeat that evokes the cries of a community under siege it lashes out against unpunished criminals who did something worse than physically attack our land; they gutted it from the inside out. "Hometown" is an account of how we mistakenly believed that outside sources would destroy our country when in fact Americans who never wielded a gun or knife caused more harm than anyone ever could have imagined. The streets we grew up on, the towns that made our cars and the small businesses that helped our country and communities thrive, dried up because of greed. The glaring irony here is that in 1984, Springsteen foreshadowed this in a deeper level as he spoke about the closing of auto plants and how it ruined the heart of these small towns on "My Hometown". That death and destruction went beyond main street America and infected the country as a whole. This was a decades-long detonating bomb that shattered the American dream. The final chorus changes to "Death to our hometown" where he places himself next to the listener. Springsteen is doing more than telling a story but mourning the loss of his childhood and his home. The streets and shops he walked with his father are gone and no amount of money and success can bring it back. It's a subtle change in the song, but it penetrates the listener and pulls them closer like a friend in need. There is no divide between Springsteen and his audience here; we are one in the same sharing the same dreams and nightmares.
"This Depression" captures the shadows and despondency that infects one at turbulent moments. The passive and solid downbeat drumming is a musical metaphor for the weight of cross they have to bear. When the narrator confesses, "In this depression, I need your heart", it may be the most pure and truthful lyric of love he's ever composed. Included is a guitar solo by Tom Morello who expunges the despair that runs through our veins in a guitar solo that captures as much of the dread one song can encapsulate. He doesn't have a voice, but the instrument in his hands expresses as fragile empathy as visceral as any bluesman on the Chess Records label ever has. Springsteen terrifyingly captures the horror of our weakest moments here. This is someone who isn't going through the motions but whose belief system and life course may be forever altered. There was a moment in the last few years where the crushing and insoluble ache got the best of me. I sat on my sofa and proceeded to shake, go blind from the tears welling in my eye ducts and felt wronged by the universe. The only thing that stopped me was my two-year-old who had walked over to me with a look on her face of both terror and empathy. I don't think she could grasp what I was experiencing yet she came close as if she knew I needed something. As I grasped her and felt her heartbeat against mine, I realized I was dangerously close to losing the very core of my being. Challenging times harden us and steals the inner child within that brings us joy. Once we lose that innocence it makes us cynics in the game of life. Springsteen may not be able to give us the answers, but he can infect the listener with a profound sense of self, hope and preservation.
"Land of Hope and Dreams" was the first new song the reunited E Street Band and Springsteen performed on their 1999-2000 world tour. While the song acted as a re-dedication to the music Springsteen and the E Street Band, over time the song has been viewed out of context mostly due to its overbearing arrangement. The version included on Wrecking Ball paints the song in an entirely new light while remaining true to its initial vision. The song is broken down to a much more manageable seven-minute length with a strapping and defiant charge. He eulogizes about the Promised Land and while we may never get their in our present human form, there's a spiritual lingering that closes the record like a warm embrace. Springsteen is too smart and world weary to paint pictures of rose gardens and tell his listener that rights will be wrong, but he can inject an insurrectionary fortitude to take with you. When I hear Springsteen sing with such earnestness on Wrecking Ball I believe my struggle, the pain endured and the dread that embodied my existence wasn't for nothing.
Many of us expect the impossible from Springsteen because he set the bar so astoundingly high between 1975 and 1987, thus everything that has come since stands in its shadow. However, as the economic divide has hit me personally, I look back at his body of work over the last two decades and I begin to wonder if Springsteen changed or if it was me? As I re-listen to The Ghost of Tom Joad I hear a man taking on topics no one else dared to discuss. He may not have experienced the plight of immigrants firsthand, but he gave them a voice when they didn't have one of their own. He did the same for the Iraq war veteran in "Devils and Dust" flawlessly painting a picture of extreme sacrifice and now with a financial divide so immense, he has delivered a furious sermon I can't help but be moved by. Every time Bruce Springsteen releases a record, it's hailed as his best since 1987's Tunnel of Love. Is Wrecking Ball his best since then? I can't say as records and their shades change over time. What's important is that Wrecking Ball as it stands today is an urgent record no other act has made during this current crisis. You can hear his skin bubble from the impassioned intensity he brings to each song. Wrecking Ball is brimming with anger to the point of excess, but his shotgun tirades ring true and thrust you back to life.
The album's title-cut, "Wrecking Ball", initially debuted in late 2009 at the end of his last world tour. The song felt slight to me at the time, but in this newly terse and feverish studio cut, it comes into focus with the other hard-bitten truths on the record. There is scintillating momentum here and it stirs up emotions from within as its foot stomping rhythm strikes a potent chord. As he repeats "And hard times come and hard times go/ Yeah just to come again" he acknowledges he alone can't change the world, but through his voice and the guitar in his hand he is reawakening all the good within with a chronicle of endurance. As you listen to Springsteen howl, Max Weinberg pulverize his snare drum, Curt Ramm's soulful horn and the backing vocal gruff of Steve Van Zandt I hear a an rupturing electric folk song that is downright exhilarating. Bruce Springsteen's widescreen vision of America on Wrecking Ball is filled with terror, tension, tenacity and above all else, triumph which may not replenish your bank account, but it will replenish your soul.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
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