Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball

Wrecking Ball (2012)

B+

1. We Take Care Of Our Own 2. Easy Money 3. Shackled And Drawn 4. Jack Of All Trades 5. Death To My Hometown 6. This Depression 7. Wrecking Ball 8. You’ve Got It 9. Rocky Ground 10. Land Of Hope And Dreams 11. We Are Alive

 

B+ may not seem like that high of a grade for a legendary artist like Bruce Springsteen, or even in general. I mean, I was pretty excited when I got a B+ on my final project for 10th grade history because I spent so much of that class being a lazy ass back of the classroom, that grade may as well have been a Fulbright Scholarship offer (can you blame me for rebelling against a teacher named—and I’m serious—Ms. Fuhrer?? No, you can. I was a shithead and she was nice and definitely not Hitler-like). But in general, albums I rate B+ don’t tend to be in the top tier of artists’ output. However, when it comes to Bruce, allow me to remind you that B+ is the same grade I gave beloved classics Born to Run, The River, and Born in the U.S.A. No, that is not an accident. I think Wrecking Ball, which was written and performed by a 62-year old man from New Jersey and made about as much of a critical and commercial impact upon its release as every Hanson song not called “MMMBop,” is, in totality, every bit as good of an album as Born to Run.

(Incidentally, did you know that Hanson are actually still together? It’s true. I saw them on TV last night. They’re all grown up and look like douchey businessmen).

OK, now that we’ve got the hot take clickbaity portion of the review out of the way, we can get down to business. To me, Wrecking Ball is structured similarly to any of Bruce’s classic-era albums in that it’s driven more by a conceptual narrative than a unifying musical throughline. Maybe Darkness was more soulful, The River garagier, etc., but those sounds all got Bruceified anyway. No, what defined those albums were the themes, man, and on Wrecking Ball, Bruce tackles the various plights of the Great Recession with as much sweeping conceptual vigor as he had in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It certainly has an interesting musical identity distinct from any other Bruce album, featuring modern touches like electronic drum loops and even some guest rapping genetically grafted onto songs that mostly seem more influenced by Bruce’s time chilling his folk friends in the Sessions Band than they do by the E Street Band (who don’t appear on the album aside from a couple of brief cameo appearances by Little Steven, Max Weinberg, and Clarence, who died before it was released). But it’s the thematic impact that carries Wrecking Ball even when the tunes themselves can’t stack up to the cream of his output from that era.

Indeed, there are definitely no classics to stand up alongside Bruce’s greatest hits here. Obviously. I mean, the man’s in his ‘60s – at this point, the day he writes another “Badlands” is the day Jude Law realizes that smarmily mugging at the camera =/= acting. In fact, the lead single and opener “We Take Care of Our Own” is one of the album’s least compelling songs because it just sounds like “Formulaic Bruce Anthem #87.” It is kind of nice to hear Bruce return to a convincingly E Street-y sound—without the E Street Band’s assistance no less!—but that sus2/sus4 riff is just plain lazy, even more so than the obviously forced lyrics, some of which are straight up baaaaaad (“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome?” Gimme a fucking break. The word “Superdome” should not appear in a rock ‘n roll song any more than “grab her by the pussy” should be the most lasting quote from a political campaign. But what a world we live in, eh?).

However, Wrecking Ball is actually more consistent than an album like The River in that even its most overweening flights of fancy don’t bring me down nearly as much as blustery yet underwritten crap like “Drive All Night” or “Meeting Across the River.” In simpler terms, the highs aren’t as high, but the lows aren’t as low either. In fact, even the least accessible songs here have some interesting experimental touches that make them worth listening to multiple times. For instance, “Jack of All Trades” is a sluggish dirge that features Bruce taking all of six minutes to unspool the tale of out of work handiman without bothering to either insert him into an actual story or come up with music more interesting than a basic, repetitive soul progression played on piano over and over again. But it also features Tom Morello adding his trademark staticky, squealing guitar to the mix, adding some much-needed jagged edges to the song. Similarly, “Rocky Ground”—the one with the rap verse—would probably be a bit of a snooze if Bruce performed it alone on acoustic guitar. But add in the gospel samples, the rapping and backing vocals, and the electronic percussion, and it becomes, at the least, effectively atmospheric, and if you’re feeling charitable, an honestly moving and emotional song. It’s actually astounding how adequate Bruce sounds incorporating all those modern production elements. I can only imagine what this song would sound like if it had been written and performed by, say U2. There would probably be a 500-piece gospel choir drowning out everything else, the rap would be performed by Sir Mix A Lot, and Bono would take a five-minute interlude to scream about the religious parallels between Jesus and Trayvon Martin or something. Ugh.

Of course, when Bruce already has a fun, catchy song to work with and the sonic experimentation is more decorative than central to the music’s success, well, even better. My favorite song on here is “Death to My Hometown,” a sort of Irish-sounding marching song includes both a thwapping electronic drum loop and a sample of a Sacred Harp field recording from the ‘50s. Pretty weird and wild! But even without that stuff, taken as a straight folk song, it still works brilliantly. Bruce’s thundering, gravelly vocal delivery is a marvel, and the title’s winking allusion to one of his hits of yore hits hard. You know that scene in Roger & Me where all those people in Flint are protesting something and they start listening to “My Hometown”? Well, 25 years later, the economic devastation caused by “The greedy thieves who came around/And ate the flesh of everything they found” has only gotten worse, the chances of reversing the damage they’ve caused even more dire. The difference in tone and loudness between the two songs speaks volumes about that progression.

That isn’t the only song on which Bruce successfully melds old-timey Americana stylings with modern arts like sampling and electronic percussion. It’s actually kind of shocking how well it works on songs like the stomping, bluesy “Shackled and Drawn” and a new studio version of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which only loosely resembles the E Street Band’s live version. It’s still plenty rousing, but it trades electric histrionics for acoustic instruments and various atmospheric elements. But if all you want is old school Bruce unencumbered by dastardly electronic influences, you’ve got the title track. Yes, some of the lyrics are pretty goofy, considering it was written as a eulogy for the since-demolished Giants Stadium – not only that, but Bruce freaking anthropomorphizes the joint, resulting in the honestly ridiculous opening couplet: “I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago/Through the mud and the beer, and the blood and the cheers, I’ve seen champions come and go.” But it’s still a heck of a lot of fun, with the full horn section and Bruce shouting and whooping along. Like the rest of Wrecking Ball, it may not be perfectly edited, but the best moments make up for it. Isn’t that the way Bruce has always been?



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