Tuesday, March 06, 2012

With Powerfully Targeted 'Wrecking Ball,' The Boss Employs Constructive Force -- Album Review: Bruce Springsteen

Album Review

Bruce Springsteen
Wrecking Ball

Even without considering the plethora of rock critics--and those of us that like to pretend--who will weigh in on Bruce Springsteen's new album, Wrecking Ball, most through outlets with viewership that dwarfs mine, I realize the inconsequence of my writing this review.

39 years after the release of his debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., "The Boss" isn't exactly an unknown entity. He's one of the most legendary of living rock stars, and into his 60s, remains one of the most active.

Wrecking Ball stands as his 6th album of new material to be released in the past 10 years, which has also brought multiple tours, live albums & DVDs, celebrated reissues of his two best albums--Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town--and considerable unearthing of previously unreleased material, including The Promise, which hit stores in 2010 but was originally slated to come between BTR and Darkness.

So if you wanted to explore Springsteen's oeuvre, old or new, or even better, his legendary live shows with the E Street Band, it's not like you haven't had ample opportunity. And if you've chosen to consciously avoid him, you're not likely to suddenly see the light this far down the road.

Thus, as Wrecking Ball comes out today after considerable hype and ample opportunities to have already heard all the songs online--you can even stream the whole album at BruceSpringsteen.net through day's end--I am guessing most people fall into one of four camps.
1) Faithful Springsteen fanatics, of which there are still many, who will buy the album regardless what anyone else thinks and explore its songs until their merits are readily apparent

2) Casual Springsteen fans who will likely ignore or dismiss the album because there is nothing--except possibly "We Take Care of Our Own"--that clearly echoes the classic sounds of "Born to Run," "Badlands," "Cadillac Ranch" or "Born in the USA." This camp might also include some who like Bruce but disdain him railing against the devastating malfeasance of greedy bankers.

3) Those who avowedly dislike Bruce and have already decided the new album must suck.

4) Anyone oblivious to Springsteen and his music. 
Admittedly part of the first camp, I think Wrecking Ball is really good but can't envision anything I say will motivate anyone not already so inclined to buy it. Even though I wouldn't call it a radical departure, with traces to past songs that a diehard will discern, it doesn't really sound, in full, like any previous Springsteen album. This is, perhaps a bit deceptively, one of Bruce's great strengths; rather than try to recreate past glories, he consistently ventures in new directions. 

Other than "We Take Care of Our Own," there are probably no songs here that I would include in a comprehensive 25-track Springsteen compilation playlist, and even my 2000-2012 Boss playlist would be heavier with songs from The Rising and Magic. Which is to say that even if rock music still spawned radio hits, Wrecking Ball isn't chock full of obvious singles. And yet...
There is nothing on it that I don't like, much that I do, and I appreciate the statement Bruce is trying to make.
After four decades of mining his considerable talent and delighting huge crowds around the world, Bruce himself is obviously part of the 1%. He is aware of this and at a recent press conference, when asked about the burdens of the economic crisis, he knowingly joked, "I’m terribly burdened, and at night when I’m sleeping in my big house, it’s killing me."

But unlike some detractors--such as former Chicago Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis, who penned this harsh review--I don't feel that Springsteen's wealth or not-inconsequential ticket prices (though I'd argue they are consistently lower than comparable acts) disqualifies him from earnestly offering commentary such as:
Gambling man rolls the dice, workingman pays the bill
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill
Up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn
In fact, I think Springsteen's success and stature only add to the power of his venom. The uber-wealthy can dismiss the Occupy protesters as jealous whiners, but when Warren Buffett says the rich are undertaxed, the resonance is harder to ignore. Say what you want about his potency, but Bruce is rallying against his own financial interests, rendering his social commentary--in my eyes at least--legitimate and laudable.

Though there has always been a workingman, Main Street bent to his work, in becoming demonstrably anti-Bush, pro-Obama in the past decade, Bruce has clearly cost himself some fans. So I see this album as a continuation of his empathetic, liberal tendencies and neither crassly opportunist nor disingenuous. And given my constant whining about the dearth of socially commentative artistry, even at risk of seeming a sycophant to some, I'm going to cheer when--perhaps not coincidentally--my hero swings his mighty axe at Wall Street transgressors and empathizes with the "Jack of All Trades" who must constantly adapt just to survive.

No, this isn't a punk album with withering musicality to match the message, but not so unlike The Clash's London Calling--without scaling quite the same heights--Wrecking Ball appeals as a album to be heard in full, elevated as a whole by the stylistic diversity yet thematic kinship of the songs.

"We Take Care of Our Own" sounds a bit reminiscent of "Badlands," but actually reminds more of "Born in the U.S.A." as its anthemic chorus is actually a tease, inverted by the angry verses that take America very much to task.

"Easy Money," "Shackled and Drawn" and "Death to My Hometown" are folky stomps likely derived from Springsteen's Seeger Sessions forays, but though the latter seemingly alludes to "My Hometown" of Born in the U.S.A., musically "Jack of All Trades" is much more similar, with guest guitarist and fellow megastar-cum-rebel Tom Morello raging in a more low-key fashion than typical.

On "Death to My Hometown," of which I'll include a clip at bottom, Bruce is at his most lyrically strident, slyly suggesting an insurgency against those who wreaked havoc on the world. 
Sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves who came around
And ate the flesh of everything they found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Who walk the streets as free men now

They brought death to our hometown...
Nicely juxtaposed amidst the tales of social injustice, "You've Got It" is a charmingly simple love song while "This Depression" openly expresses the need for emotional sustenance amidst tough times. And though Bruce and the band have been playing "Land of Hope and Dreams" live since 1999, the initial studio version fits in well here and provides a great opportunity to hear the late Clarence Clemons wailing away on his saxophone for the last time.

For those of us who listen to our Boss rather intently, it's also interesting to note how album closer "We Are Alive" answers the question "Is there anybody alive out there?"--posed in "Radio Nowhere," which opened 2007's Magic, and exhorted by Bruce in almost every concert since--with an emphatic, if a tad wearisome, "Yes."

Although the rest of the E Street Band only shows up sporadically on the album--whose liner notes are highlighted by a touching tribute from Bruce to Clarence, taken from his eulogy and ending with "Clarence doesn't leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die."--several of the songs should transition well to the concert stage. Though I won't say at this point that I would rather hear any of these tunes than "Backstreets," "Jungleland" or "Rosalita," I would also be disappointed if several of them aren't sprinkled into the setlists, and wouldn't mind the inclusion of any of Wrecking Ball's 11 songs.

So take this review for what it's worth; I'm such a Springsteen fan that I am uncertain of my own objectivity. But whereas I felt his last album, Working on a Dream, was subpar (though not awful) and several of his recent releases have been overrated by Rolling Stone--including probably this one, which they gave 5 stars--this is a quality work by a great artist. I was wavering between awarding @@@@ and @@@@1/2, but this feels like an album that should only grow with time.

As I end with a clip of a performance of "Death to My Hometown" by Bruce and the E Street Band--joined by Morello--on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, I thought I would throw out that few rock artists have ever been as prolific and productive as Springsteen past age 50. It seems one could only argue Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen as having anywhere near Bruce's output this late in their careers. Wrecking Ball only adds to his legacy--he was inducted in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1999--and though you probably made your mind up long ago one way or the other, I really think you will enjoy it.

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