Bruce Springsteen: “Wrecking Ball”
When Springsteen released his Pete Seeger tribute album in 2006, reviews were generally quite good, but there’s one piece that still strikes me; a major publication lambasted Bruce for releasing a record of dusty old folk songs during a time when America was divided, warring at home and abroad. As if it is somehow Bruce’s responsibility to capture the national mood with every record he makes. As if the Seeger Sessions record, with its history-rich tales of war and sorrow, Gospel and joy, were somehow less resonant today than they were a hundred years ago.
The irony is that every record Springsteen has made over the last decade– from The Rising onward– has offered commentary on national affairs; Seeger happens to be the one that I find to be most effective, its humor and its sadness and its swing turning it into a genuine rallying call. The others are all a bit po-faced and self-serious, I think, and the new Wrecking Ball is no exception.
It’s true enough that the album is something of a return to form for Bruce, the songs generally much better than the ones on the two albums that came before it. And it’s probably worth noting that the record lifts a lot of the Irish folk lilt and protest-march chords from The Seeger Sessions, as if there could be any doubt that this is a modernized rallying call for the Occupy era. It’s a good idea, but what doesn’t carry over from the Pete Seeger record is the color, the storytelling richness, that made those songs stick.
Here, Bruce does not write in character much; he is not confessional, or funny, he is just writing anthems. And these anthems do a good enough job of capturing a certain sense of bristling rage– a moral indignation that does, at times, make Wrecking Ball galvanizing– but when the entire first half of the record is loaded with references to “fat-cat bankers” and armed uprisings (complete with the rather corny sound of a shotgun blast at the end of one song!), it’s difficult not to find the whole thing a bit flimsy, good intentions spread over over-earnestness and weak songwriting.
Which is not to say that there is not enough here to make for an okay Springsteen record– the bitter ironies of “We Take Care of Our Own” and the double entendre in “This Depression” counteract the thin character study in “Jack of All Trades,” and the aforementioned shotgun blast. The second half of the record is stronger: The title track works up to a wonderful E-Street swell, and the fevered gospel epic, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” makes its studio debut here. It is a wonder, with an appearance from the late Clarence Clemons that puts a lump in the throat.
But it’s probably telling– of my own tastes, of this record’s rather graven air, or perhaps of both– that the songs I like best are the looser, more spontaneous ones. “You’ve Got It” is the only thing here that could rightly be called “fun,” a spry little love song that points to the kinds of rock and roll records I’d love to hear Bruce make again. The closing song, “We are Alive,” is a folk song that lifts a line from the Seeger playbook, finding hope and conviction in the backpages of American history. It’s spirited and it makes its point without Bruce seeming like he’s trying to be our Messiah.
Speaking of which, there is another song, “Rocky Ground,” that makes a good point about pastors leading their flocks into greater compassion and understanding– but ironically enough, it makes that point through the preachiest writing of Springsteen’s career. I guess I just prefer him when he’s telling stories. But there is plenty to appreciate about Wrecking Ball, starting with the nobility of its calling. It’s very hard to dislike a record so pure in its intentions– even if I happen to think Bruce has written much better songs, often on similar subjects, before.