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Bruce Springsteen, ‘Wrecking Ball’ – Album Review

Bruce Springsteen Wrecking Ball
Columbia Records

Cheers rang out when the advance word came out that Bruce Springsteen‘s new album, ‘Wrecking Ball,’ would be a reaction to the ongoing economic hardships in America. After all, for most of his nearly 40-year recording career, Springsteen has been rock’s greatest chronicler of those whose lives have been shattered by uncontrollable forces.

This should have been a slam-dunk for him. And yet, despite some excellent moments and something to admire in nearly every song, ‘Wrecking Ball’ falls short of the mark. That’s not to say that ‘Wrecking Ball’ is a bad album — it’s quite good — but rather that it doesn’t live up to his high standards.

The main problem with ‘Wrecking Ball’ stems from what appears to be a conscious decision on his part to change his songwriting approach. Ever since ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town,’ Bruce has used the verse to tell the story, tying it to something greater — an image, a concept, a metaphor — in the chorus. It’s been his M.O. on pretty much all of his best songs about American life, from ‘The Promised Land’ through ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ all the way up to 2007′s ‘Long Walk Home,’ and why his songs are simultaneously universal and personal.’ As he defined it in a 2002 interview, “The verses are the blues, the chorus is the gospel.”

While ‘Wrecking Ball’ has plenty of anthemic choruses that will come to life on his upcoming tour, this shift has left us without the detailed, compelling characters with whom we can empathize that we’ve come to expect. It speaks volumes about ‘Wrecking Ball’ that one of its most interesting protagonists is the football stadium of its title track.

After the rousing, but generic, ‘We Take Care Of Our Own,’ three of the next four songs are about how the ‘”fat cats” (‘Easy Money’) up on “Bankers Hill” (‘Shackled and Drawn’) should be sent “straight to hell” (‘Death to My Hometown’). While Springsteen’s anger is palpable and just, good politics doesn’t always equate great songwriting, and instead of a classic Springsteen album, we have a great John Mellencamp one.

Thankfully, there are exceptions, and they appear just before we can lose interest. ‘Jack Of All Trades’ and ‘This Depression’ strike to the same emotional core that make ’Stolen Car’ and ‘State Trooper’ still resonate after 30 years. The former is the highlight of the album’s first half. Set against a rolling 6/8 piano straight out of the Stax Records songbook, Bruce reassures his wife that his ability to do odd jobs and manual labor will get them through these hard times. But, as when he sang “The highway is alive tonight” on ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad,’ there’s no optimism in his voice, only doubt and fear. The latter is a desperate plea to a lover to help pull him out of his darkness.

The last three songs that close ‘Wrecking Ball’ are remarkable, and redeem what would have otherwise been a weak album. ‘Rocky Ground’ finds Springsteen drawing upon his Catholic upbringing — always a rich source of inspiration for him — and breaking new ground musically, incorporating mournful horns, a sample from an Alan Lomax field recording, and gospel singer Michelle Moore, who is featured prominently in the chorus and also contributes a rap towards the end. It may take a few listens for it to grow, but it works.

‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ was the standard show closer on the ‘Rising’ tours, and was first released on the ’Live in New York City’ album. The studio version incorporates the Impressions’ gospel-soul classic ‘People Get Ready’ into the mix. But it’s midway through the song, when the late Clarence Clemons makes his only solo on the album, that you realize what an unfillable hole his death last year has left.

The closer, ‘We Are Alive,’ finds Springsteen channeling the ghosts of protestors past — striking railroad workers, civil rights activists and migrant workers — to express solidarity with those doing so today. “And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark / Our souls and spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark / To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart / We are alive.” ‘Wrecking Ball’ ends on a note of campfire optimism complete with a prominent banjo, likely as a nod to his buddy Pete Seeger.

Ultimately, ‘Wrecking Ball’ falls somewhere in the middle of Springsteen’s released original output over the past decade. It’s superior to ‘Devils and Dust’ and ‘Working on a Dream,’ but not as strong as ‘Magic’ and ‘The Rising.’ It rises to the level of its musical ambition, jumping from genre-to-genre, sometimes within the song. But there’s something missing in the early going that allows the listener to get ahold of the ideas and deliver the hope contained in the final songs even stronger.

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