The best thing about “Wrecking Ball” is that, both lyrically and musically, it doesn’t sound like a Bruce Springsteen album. And this is coming from somebody who loves a lot of Bruce Springsteen albums.
Bruce Springsteen, "Wrecking Ball" (Columbia Records) GRADE: A-
Judging by “Wrecking Ball," there are a few things Bruce Springsteen may no longer be interested in, at least for now. One of those is Mary (along with Janey and Ralph and Joe Roberts and all the other usual suspects from his past songs). The other one is rock ’n’ roll.
Gone are Springsteen’s trademark character studies, and as for the music, it’s more informed by the eclectic folk-based styles of 2006’s “The Seeger Sessions” than it is by any of Springsteen’s ’70s or ’80s output. Songs like “We Take Care of Our Own” and the title track have a rock vibe, but the majority of “Wrecking Ball” is more of a cross between an Irish wake and a revival meeting, packed with whoops, yelps, stomps, hollers, the occasional musket and one rap — but more on that later.
Still, I’m here to argue that most of the above is to be celebrated, not feared. In fact, the best thing about “Wrecking Ball” is that, both lyrically and musically, it doesn’t sound like a Bruce Springsteen album. And this is coming from somebody who loves a lot of Bruce Springsteen albums.
A patchwork of styles, archival snippets and evocative allusions seamlessly woven among anachronistic references to vultures, fat cats and robber barons, much of “Wrecking Ball” is tied to the simple theme spelled out amid the stomping country rhythms of “Shackled and Drawn”: Let a man work, is that so wrong?
At its core, the album is about unfair income disparity, the mortgage crisis, and how desperate people can get when robbed of both the opportunity to work and the dignity that goes along with it. Luckily, the album’s penchant for rollicking Americana over “Devils & Dust”-style dirges rescues it from being the downer you’d expect from that kind of subject matter.
Besides, like so much of Springsteen, it’s as much about hope and the need to connect as it is about economic and emotional despair. And as for the lack of colorful characters, that choice feels organic — these aren’t fringe players but regular folks who have to “put out the cat” before heading out for “Easy Money” armed with a Smith & Wesson 38.
Take the stellar “Jack of All Trades” — told in waltz time amid a plaintive piano and an anguished Tom Morello guitar solo, its point of view of an unemployed man trying to convince his wife that “we’ll be alright” is at once riveting, moving and heartbreaking. The result is one of the most remarkable songs of Springsteen’s career.
Others are almost equally as deft. On the pounding “Death to My Hometown,” Springsteen marries military metaphors with Irish folk rhythms, making it the album’s angriest song and also its most jubilant. And on the restrained, gospel-infused “Rocky Ground,” the short rap by gospel singer Michelle Moore is perfectly coupled with Springsteen’s almost buoyant howl; it’s one of many elements that make the song, rife with religious imagery, so memorable and ambitious — like much of the album.
“Wrecking Ball” does sag a bit in the middle, with a heartfelt delivery barely saving “This Depression” from terminal clunkiness, and “You’ve Got It” sounding like it wandered in off a Bob Seger album. And the title track is the same novelty song about the Meadowlands that it was when Springsteen debuted it in concert in 2009, although its poignant refrain that “hard times come and hard times go, just to come again” justifies its place at the album’s center.
As for the studio version of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” first introduced on the E Street Band reunion tour way back in 1999, it may seem an odd choice given the minimal ESB participation on “Wrecking Ball” — but all doubts are erased when the late Clarence Clemons’ saxophone blares as punctuation to Springsteen’s “bells of freedom ringin’.” It’s a perfect climax, a feeling of despair turning into faith, even through tears.
Through it all, Springsteen sounds more resigned than restless — which, at 62, is at it should be. Springsteen’s mature drawl, expertly focused by his new producer Ron Aniello, serves him well here. Even more than the lyrics, it’s the knowing world-weariness behind them that makes the songs so haunting, and so uplifting when anger and desperation finally give way, however begrudgingly, to hope.
For the full version of this review and a track-by-track breakdown of "Wrecking Ball," visit Blogness on the Edge of Town at blogs.wickedlocal.com/springsteen. Follow Peter Chianca on Twitter at twitter.com/pchianca.