There have been very few times in my life where I have been happy to be wrong; Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball might stand out as the greatest instance. After finding lead single “We Take Care Of Our Own,” to be somewhat mediocre, and fearing the same thing for all of the album, having my expectations blown away is a wonderful feeling. With Wrecking Ball, Springsteen makes one of his most personal and expressive albums of his career, one that outshines 2009’s Working On A Dream by miles. If I had to described the album in to people more familiar with Springsteen’s work, I would say that it is a mix of We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006) and Magic (2007).
Thematically, Wrecking Ball has close kinship with We Shall Overcome and Magic; Overcome for the overall folk sound and mentality of the album, and Magic for the attack on modern America. With Magic, Springsteen set out to paint a portrait of America under the Bush regime and with Wrecking Ball he paints a picture of America in 2012. Where I think Wrecking Ball succeeds Magic is that it is a better vehicle to carry the message. With Magic one had to do some thinking about the lyrics in order to understand what Springsteen was getting at (for example, I did not know until recently reading a review of Magic that “Livin’ In The Future,” was about wire-tapping). Wrecking Ball is about as subtle as a wrecking ball knocking on your front door when it comes to the messages in the lyrics; a very straightforward picture of modern America. As part of this modern America, Springsteen draws in modern musical influences; such as having Tom Morello, guitarist for Rap-Metal group Rage Against The Machine, play guitar on “Jack of All Trades,” and “This Depression,” and having part of the lyrics of “Rocky Ground,” rapped by singer Michelle Williams.
As a whole, the album’s message does not leave modern America as a lost cause, but instead, carries a message of hope and renewal in some of the songs. That feel of hope does not restrict Springsteen from digging into the raw, nerve endings of modern America, as best seen on the Irish-folk sounding track, “Death to My Hometown.” Springsteen really gets mad on this track, as when he sings “Send the robber barons straight to hell / The greedy thieves who came around / And ate the flesh of everything they found,” he embodies the frustration and anger across blue collar and small town America. Behind Springsteen, we can hear the voices of the “Occupy” protestors, the mom and pop shops shut down across the country, and all those in hard times today. With “Death to My Hometown,” and other songs like “Jack of All Trades,” and “Wrecking Ball,” Springsteen seems to channel a traditional folk mentality and transcend him from singer to almost a folk hero in persona and message.
While it is fun to get angry, Wrecking Ball’s true power and message can be seen with three key tracks of hope; the title track, “Wrecking Ball,” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” and “We Are Alive.” “Wrecking Ball,” is an interesting story in and of itself. The song was original written and performed in Springsteen’s four night stay at the old Meadowlands stadium, about the stadium and the people who have been part of the stadium and its history. Springsteen’s appropriation of the song is somewhat remarkable, as the version of the song on the album has become not only metaphoric, but much more defiant. Instead of a song simply honoring “Where Giants play the game,” the song has taken on a new life as an anthem for the people. Springsteen’s blue collar connection creates a song of defiance and standing strong; a song to unite people and stand together in the face of the future. Closer to the end of the song, there is a bit of call and response as Springsteen calls “Bring on your wrecking ball,” and his answered by a chorus of voices singing the same in response. This is, simply, one of the coolest parts of the album. In the choral responses, I hear hope and strength, and defiance in the face of these hard times.
“Land of Hope and Dreams,” is another song that was not exclusively written for the album, having been originally written and performed as part of the Reunion tour at the end of the 90s. That being said, there is a collision of modern and classic as traditional rock, folk, and gospel sounds collide with so modern influences, such as a drum machine in parts of the track. Let alone for the incredible beauty of the track, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” shines out for being the one track on the album on which we hear the only voice to match Springsteen’s; the belting saxophone of the late Clarence “Big Man” Clemons. The sax solos are excellent representations of the power that Clemons’s had, and helps spin the true magic of a Bruce Springsteen song as only that sax can.
The album closes with the very appropriate “We Are Alive.” While the song carriers some of the darkness of The Ghost of Tom Joad, in this case telling of tragic deaths suffered and being imprisoned in black graves, the message here is clearest. Springsteen’s parting words are ones of unity, love, and hope. “To carry the fire and light the spark / To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart / To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart / We are alive.” America as it should be; its citizens shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.
- Jackson Sinnenberg, host of Sinn 6:66, a classic rock radio show on WGTB that airs Fridays at 11pm