Wrecking Ball, the 17th studio album by Bruce Springsteen, arrived with the expected hoopla and hype because, well, Springsteen is one of the last true musical legends still consistently making mainstream,widely-accepted rock and roll.
Hell, he’s even become prolific of late, releasing six albums in the last 10 years, more than any other decade in his 40-plus-year career.
What the early advances failed to mention was that Wrecking Ball is easily the best album Springsteen has released since 1987’s Tunnel of Love.
And while a lot of advance press touted Wrecking Ball’s emphasis on the current economic and political climate, they didn’t acknowledge how adept Springsteen has become at furthering the lessons learned from great folk icons like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
First and foremost, write good, solid songs. And to this end, Wrecking Ball stands out – not for its radio-ready anthems, although there are several of those – but for the consistency on display, track to track to track.
And secondly, cloak the message whenever possible so that it seeps easier into the collective conscience, thereby allowing the seed to take hold and grow.
There’s so much to digest in Wrecking Ball’s 13 tracks thatI’ve decided to do a song-by-song breakdown with thoughts. It’s a bit of a deviation, but I think this album warrants the extra ink.
1 – “We Take Care of Our Own”: Think “Born in the U.S.A.,” but the stripped down version found on Tracks, the version where you realize the genius of what Springsteen had done. Most people misinterpreted “Born in the U.S.A.” as a rallying cry. It was a scathing indictment. Consider “We Take Care of Our Own” to be its sequel, playing like an uptempo, stadium-ready anthem. It’s really a shiv in the kidney of American politics, calling out the failed federal responses to disasters born of God and greedy bankers.
2 – “Easy Money”: In the 22 years since the Chicken Man got blown up in “Atlantic City,” a lot has changed. The narrator still has a girl. He still wants her to get dolled up to go out. But he no longer sounds remorseful or anxious about what he has to do, or who he has to rob, to pay bills that no honest man could pay.
All them fat cats/They’ll just think it’s funny
I’m going on the town now/Looking for easy money
3 – “Shackled and Drawn”: At once a celebration of blue collar workers, and a statement about how the middle and lower class have become the 21st Century equivalent of indentured servants. “Up on Banker’s Hill the party’s going strong,” Springsteen sings, while down below the masses keep “’trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong.”
4 – “Jack of All Trades”: Another stand-out track, and another testament to the blue-collar mentality that has been lost in recent generations. “The banker man grows fat,” he sings, “The working man grows thin.” The thing that resonates here is the expert wordplay. Not only is Springsteen a jack of all trades, he can do this and fix that, but he becomes a willing weapon, a vigilante, exemplifying the lengths that people are now willing to go to survive and the need to find an outlet to spew forth the venom that has been sown in our hearts from disappointment and rage at our government, our leaders, our lives.
If I had me a gun/I’d find the bastards and shoot them on sight
I’m a jack of all trades/We’ll be all right
5 – “Death to My Hometown”: The last time Springsteen visited his hometown was 1984, in the final cut off Born in the U.S.A. It was a somber, bittersweet look at childhood innocence and a dying way of life, full of shuttered factories and boarded up windows on Main Street. What a difference 28 years makes. “Death to My Hometown” kicks off like a drunken Irish sing-along at a raucous wake, but Springsteen’s laser-precision lyrics have never been more carefully aimed. This may sound like a raucous celebration, but it’s one of the bleakest portraits of American decline that he’s ever created, complete with shotgun blasts in the background.
No shells ripped the evening sky/No cities burning down
No armies stormed the shores for which we’d die/No dictators were crowned
High off on a quiet night/I never heard a sound
The marauders raided in the dark and brought death to my hometown, boys/Death to my hometown
They destroyed our families’ factories and they took our homes/They left our bodies on the plains
The vultures picked our bones
6 – “This Depression”: Remember what I said about cloaking the message? This is a classic example, with nary a word spoken about bankers, thieves or bastards. Just a love song, framed by today’s grim reality.
7 – “Wrecking Ball”: Essentially a song about Giants Stadium, “Wrecking Ball” transcends its sports subtext to fold nicely into a concept album about the devastating financial, emotional and societal damage wreaked by the lingering economic crisis. Few songs can marry such divergent themes as a country’s insistence on self-flagellation and its inexplicable ability to weather any storm. And therein lies the beauty of what Springsteen accomplishes. He fuses Woody Guthrie’s ability to pen damning indictments of current and global issues with P.T. Barnum’s knack for whipping a crowd into a sustained frenzy. The buoyant sense of hope that emerges is the musical equivalent of being swept up by the holy spirit in church. “Wrecking Ball” should be included for years to come as one of The Boss’s best tracks ever penned.
8 – “You’ve Got It”: Much like “Valentine’s Day,” off Tunnel of Love, seemed in stark contrast to the 11 songs that had preceded it, “You’ve Got It” doesn’t fit at first with the overriding theme. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good song or deserving to be heard. The sheer optimism is just jarring.
9 – “Rocky Ground”: The most overtly spiritual song on the album, a mixture of scripture and allegories that directly tie back to today’s crisis. This would have been a standout track on The Ghost of Tom Joad or The Rising. Even the oddly placed rap three minutes in doesn’t feel cliched or a desperate grab for relevance. It works.
10 – “Land of Hope and Dreams”: I first heard this song way back in the year 2000, the only time I got to see Springsteen in concert. it’s a fantastic live track, but finally released on an album, it fits perfectly with the overall theme. “Land” seamlessly merges Bruce’s two best traits, the epic six-plus-minute story song filled with visual imagery and the deep faith that has imbued his later work. Plus you can’t help but smile when the Big Man’s sax comes blasting through.
This train/Carries saints and sinners
This train/Carries losers and winners
This train/Carries whores and gamblers
This train/Carries lost souls
This train/Dreams will not be thwarted
This train/Faith will be rewarded
11 – “We Are Alive”: Another quiet, softly stated ballad that tricks listeners. It starts out as a pretty song, a la “Secret Garden,” then morphs into a western-fueled sing-a-long complete with “The Big Valley”-era brass and hand claps. I love the refrain, “We are alive,” that swells and builds into a mantra of hope.
12 – “Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale)”: Springsteen goes back to the Bible, but this time Jonah’s whale symbolizes much more. This is a dark, difficult listen, filled with a hopelessness that’s palpable.
13 – “American Land”: This is the second song to blast off like an Irish jig, touting the prosperity and future awaiting immigrants in America. Is this a signal that hope ultimately prevails? Or is “American Land” a misplaced prologue, or worse, a bloody joke. Springsteen doesn’t show his hand, which is fitting.
This may be the last song on the album, but it’s not the end to this story.
The end remains to be written.
The end remains to be sung…