Record Review: Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball”
It would be easy to write a review of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball album and salute it as new, novel, angry and revolutionary, but it would also be unfortunate and uninformed to call it any of those things. I’d easily go out on a limb and state that I believe that Wrecking Ball is the most interesting album Springsteen has released since Tunnel of Love, but the only thing new is that this is the first time that he has taken a select group of the elements he has been talking about and listening to and engaging with for the length of his entire career and put it on album. The only thing that surprises me is that it took him so long to get here.
The album is a bold step in the right direction, but it is far from perfect. The choice of Ron Aniello in the producer’s seat seems odd, and off; I realize he worked with Patti Scialfa and that’s the likely origin of the connection, but the rest of his resume screams bland and uninteresting, with Candlebox and Lifehouse listed as the high points. Given Springsteen’s legendary stubbornness in the recording studio, it’s uncertain whether Aniello was the best person for Bruce to work with at this juncture, with the goal of integrating a whole host of new sonic elements into his songs so that they were seamless and didn’t stand out like sore thumbs. Some otherwise very good songs on Wrecking Ball suffer not from over-production, but lack of skilled production. I don’t have a problem with sounds like these being on a Bruce Springsteen record; what I have a problem with is the poor execution of these elements.
The lazy lede from many on Wrecking Ball is to call it “angry” or to insist that it’s an ode to Occupy Wall Street. It’s lazy because it simply displays a lack of attention to not just what Springsteen’s been doing not just since The Rising, but for his entire career: songs on Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River and Nebraska were clearly discussing economic inequity and social justice as clearly and directly as “Easy Money,” the song most often tapped as the OWS anthem because of the “fat cats” lyric. But that also overlooks other songs on the record, like “Jack of All Trades” and “Death to My Hometown”: the former could be an update in the biography of the protagonist in “Used Cars,” the latter a continuation of the saga of “they’re closing down the textile mills/and they ain’t coming back” from its 1984 namesake. News flash: if you go back and look just a little, you’ll see that the themes on Wrecking Ball are identical to many that Bruce Springsteen has been concerned about and addressing for a large portion of his entire career.
There’s an anachronistic, almost quaint side one / side two split on the record, which is unhappily uneven, despite a clear attempt to track a solid thematic arc throughout the entire album. Track one, side one is once again dedicated to the radio hit, and once again, the radio hit is one that’s already being misinterpreted and misappropriated by political campaigns. “We Take Care of Our Own” is certainly polished and perky and undeniably commercial; people were joking about it being one step up from an insurance ad. If you think that the ability to write a hit song is a creative crime, then you will look down your nose at “We Take Care of Our Own,” but it shouldn’t be surprising that Bruce Springsteen can still write a radio-friendly rock and roll song (even when there’s no radio on which to play it).
The rest of side one has its ups and downs: “Easy Money” could be a single, and Steve Jordan’s drum work and Patti Scialfa’s vocal arrangements make it a stand out. “Shackled and Drawn” is an example where the new sonic elements add to the palette; I’ll note that this track is credited with “containing elements of” rather than “contains excerpts from” – indicating that the reference to “Me and My Baby Got A Good Thing Going” by Lyn Brown is not a sample, and would instead point to Cindy Mizelle’s (a welcome if under-utilized presence on the last tour, who will clearly be much busier on this one) credit on the song.
I don’t think that it’s surprising that Bruce is drawn to gospel right now. At the end of the last tour, Dave Marsh organized a discussion panel on E Street Radio to talk about what we thought would be next. I said that I thought he would work with a gospel choir, or maybe I just wanted him to. (I’ve also wished for him to go on tour with another band, like Social Distortion, and have prayed religiously for a true horn section.) I don’t think it’s surprising because the best songs in his repertoire share the themes of deliverance and salvation and just plain rising up that are at the heart of gospel. It was interesting to read in the transcript of the European press event that Springsteen had started to work on a gospel record before abandoning it for this one.
The latter half of side one starts to present challenges: “Jack of All Trades” is phenomenal, a stunning tribute to the under-employed. I wish that Steve Jordan was in place on the drum stool instead of the distracting drum machine. It’s also in a tough spot on the album. Despite actively liking the song–the guitar work from both Bruce and Tom Morello (who should go out on tour with E Street as far as I’m concerned) the vocals, the horn arrangement–I almost always want to skip right past this six-minute dirge.
“Death to My Hometown,” which comes next, is probably the weakest song on the record, and not just because Bruce brings the unnecessary faux-Irish accent out of nowhere. I don’t mind the the penny whistle or the looping of the fa so la/Sacred Harp tune “The Last Words of Copernicus” underneath as the backing vocals, I just mind what feels like a forced ethnicity, for lack of a better term. This song sung as a straight folk song, Bruce just on acoustic guitar, would be just as compelling and a million times less annoying. “This Depression” is another standout track, with more amazing guitar work from Morello, but the transition from “Death to My Hometown” does it a serious disservice.
When “Wrecking Ball” was debuted at Giants Stadium, my first thought was that it was as strong musically as it was weak lyrically. When I saw this song listed on the initial track listing, all I could think was: why? It was bad enough it was kept around at the shows after Giants Stadium was torn down, with Bruce substituting “where champions play” instead of “where Giants play” in places like Detroit and St. Louis; the gesture was weak and unnecessary, and the inclusion of this song whose theme only tenuously fits in with the rest of the album is also unnecessary. With some small lyrical changes to remove the specificity of the song’s origin, this could have been another standout track, but that didn’t happen. But it has a good beat and you can dance to it, and it still provides a more consistent musical and thematic arc than side one.
“You’ve Got It” is a modified blues, and feels like an updated “Tougher Than The Rest”. The slide guitar, handled admirably by roots music veteran Greg Leisz, is delicate and deliberate, underscoring the emotion of the lyrics, providing just the right tension. But it seems misplaced on the side and overwhelmed by what’s on either side of it.
“Rocky Ground” is tied for the best song on the album. It’s enormous and evocative both sonically and emotionally; it should have been (and almost was) the title of the record not just because it is a superior composition, but because it more accurately captures the theme of the record and the mood of the songs on it. It’s an example where the integration of every textural element–loops, gospel, rock, soul–is 100% on and completely seamless. You don’t hear them, because they don’t stand out–you feel them. The rap bridge at the last quarter of the song is just another texture; it might be surprising the first time you hear it but it doesn’t feel wrong or out of place, just different, and a modern update of the Alan Lomax sample “I’m A Soldier (In The Army Of The Lord)” that opens the track and reappears throughout. The lineage is clear, the dots are connected. It’s unexpected and surprising and magnificent from start to finish.
Seeing “Land of Hopes and Dreams” on the original tracklist for the album did not originally seem to be a positive sign; the reappearance of multiple older songs on what’s supposed to be a new release is never a good thing to see on any artist’s record. Here, Springsteen could have taken the easy way out and provided a refreshed reprise of the Reunion-era fan favorite–it was a strong enough song on face value to have survived that. However, what no one expected was for “Land of Hopes and Dreams” to be completely reimagined. It’s the same lyrics and the same tune, but the arrangement and the instrumentation elevate this song from a nice number to one where you could find God walking through the room (to paraphrase both Bono and Quincy Jones, who originally said it). What was a pleasant and light number is now majestic and triumphant, and utterly mind-blowing.
There is much to like about “We Are Alive” if you don’t focus on it too hard. It invokes folk tales and old Negro spiritual themes of the rebirth of the soul, references the Baltimore Railroad Strike & Riot of 1877, the Civil Rights movement, and in a return to a familiar them, illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico into the United States and dying in the desert. The lyrics in the bridge, however, are more revealing:
Let your mind rest easy, sleep well my friend
It’s only our bodies that betray us in the end
Thoughts of mortality and aging at the end of a record coming out after a series of years where Springsteen has lost many close to him seems only right and proper. It doesn’t require a reading of the New Testament for it to make sense (although I confess I tried for a little while).
To those who are surprised, I would ask, where have you been? Where were you when he referenced listening to Tupac and Ludicris, where were you when he brought the Victorious Gospel Choir to sing at the 2003 Christmas Shows (a suggestion from his mother), did you think he was hanging out with Tom Morello and Mike Ness and Win Butler because he felt he had some obligation to do so? And to be surprised by the use of the sampling of the Alan Lomax recordings and other layering of borrowed or manipulated sounds means you checked out during the Devils and Dust tour. These aren’t even the only pointers in these various directions, just the most obvious ones. Calling this a “Seeger Sessions record” (which some fans are doing, out of sheer lack of reference, which is sad) means you are missing the point completely.
Even with its faults, Wrecking Ball is a tremendous album because of the potential, because of the risks taken, because of the mostly successful exploration of new territory, because he finally went out and pulled everything together for the first time on record. I wish he had gone farther, pushed further, and wonder what was left behind, what was left out, what we missed out on this time around. The unsatisfying bonus tracks, the new “Swallowed Up (In The Belly of the Whale)” and a revisited and unnecessary “American Land,” (a song that’s already been in the live show for four tours now) reveal nothing. I hope that the obvious live strength of the 2012, Big-Man bereft E Street Band as demonstrated last week on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon means that we have many, many more chances to see what other new directions Springsteen has in store for us.