Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
by Donny Kutzbach
There’s a dividing line that runs through Bruce Springsteen’s catalog, and it falls right at 1984’s Born in the USA. That was the point where Springsteen went from being the revered singer/songwriter/bandleader with a dynamic live show, qualified classic albums like Born to Run and Darkness at the Edge of Town, and an enviable, fanatical following, into something much bigger. The man known as “The Boss” found global superstardom and became perceived as a populist rock-and-roll saint.
Born in the USA veered toward a slickly produced sound heavy with, love it or not, modern touches like synthesizers and gated reverb snare drum. It was packed with Top-40-ready singles and even found the TV-eschewing Boss making his first forays into the new realm of music videos. The album spoke to the times, and there was deep personal and political protest that echoed through the title track, which centered on an America 10 years after the Vietnam war. While Ronald Reagan falsely co-opted it with jingoistic zeal for his 1984 re-election campaign, the song was clearly not a nationalistic celebration. Right on the surface of the soaring anthem was emotional and economic peril, grim and desperate. Springsteen’s America was a place where one was left with “nowhere to run, nowhere to go.”
Springsteen’s latest, Wrecking Ball, makes an interesting companion piece to Born in the USA. Wrecking Ball opens with “We Take Care of Our Own,” which has that trademark triumphant grandiosity but also bears down hard on a land of hopes and dreams that has left so many behind. “There ain’t no help/The cavalry stayed home,” Springsteen sings, and the shot is fired.
The richness and power of Wrecking Ball isn’t immediately recognizable, perhaps least of all for those swept up into Springsteen’s worthy legacy. Because he represents so much and so many different things to a wide set of people, a new Springsteen album is freighted his past. On Wrecking Ball, he’s playing to his strengths—ambitious but satisfying, timely songwriting—and still it feels like a reset, a clean break from everything before it. Song for song, this is his finest complete record since that great dividing line of 1984, arguably surpassing the downbeat mystique of Tunnel of Love and the millennial, post-9/11 elegies and joys of The Rising. It also finds Springsteen reaching at a graceful balance between a modern-feeling sound and live, organic character and nuance. Credit for that is in part due to Springsteen’s unlikely co-producer, Ron Aniello, who previously was most known in Christian rock and AAA radio circles. Aniello managed to bring something sonically fresh that works with the songs. With aid from a core of E Street Band members, a handful of studio stalwarts, and guests including Tom Morello and Matt Chamberlain, Wrecking Ball proves one of Springsteen’s most musically broad affairs, crossing his big band rock aesthetic and swelling jukebox bravado with the traditional folk and Celtic clatter of his Seeger Sessions album, the stripped, bluesy grit exhibited on Nebraska and Devils & Dust, lovelorn balladry (“You’ve Got It”), gospel (“Land of Hope and Dreams”), and shockingly even a tinge of hip-hop soul (“Rocky Ground”).
Way back on “Cover Me” in 1984, Springsteen sang, “Times are tough now/Just getting tougher/Whole world is rough/It’s just getting rougher.” So maybe he knew where things were headed. Springsteen has proclaimed Wrecking Ball his angriest record to date, and for a guy on the Jersey side of 60 years, he does vitriol with a potent ferocity and vigor that very few other angry old men can muster. Yes, he’s always sang of the many travails (and occasional triumphs) of the American working class, but Wrecking Ball digs further and deeper, and that has something to do with having that time and age lending perspective.
Fitting, too, that this album comes in the wake of economic mire, the Occupy movement, and (again, like Born in the USA) in an election year. As Joe Strummer once said, anger can be power, and Springsteen harnesses it here like a nuclear reactor. Over the euphoric marching beat and the tooting of pennywhistles on “Death to My Hometown,” he sings, “Send the robber barons straight to hell/The greedy thieves who came around/And ate the flesh of everything they found/Whose crimes have gone unpunished now.” There’s no mistakingwhat he’s saying. Back in 1984, the factories and refineries were laying off workers. Now they have completely vanished, along with men who made the money from them. It’s laid bare plain and simple.
And what reads like a paean to an old stadium slated for demolition is so much more than that. Could a song that is supposedly about the Meadowlands bring a tear to the eye? As the late saxophone colossus Clarence Clemons wails away on what is reported to be one of his final recordings, we know the old lions will eventually be knocked down, even if it takes more than the forces of nature to do it. For now, The Boss still is still standing. And he’s standing taller and stronger than he has in a long, long time.blog comments powered by Disqus
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