On his 17th studio album, Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen comes roaring back with a fire in his belly. Wrecking Ball is as cohesive, musically and thematically, as 2009’s Working on a Dream was amorphous and directionless. With a new co-producer (Ron Aniello) and a mashup of E Street Band members and guest musicians (including spectacular guitar work on two tracks from Tom Morello), Wrecking Ball is organic and rootsy, closer to the Seeger Sessions Band than the E Street Band. (The only E Streeters on the record are drummer Max Weinberg on two tracks, violinist Soozie Tyrell, vocalist Patti Scialfa, organist Charlie Giordano and the late Clarence Clemons, with two solos.) The signature sounds on this record are horns (lots of them), banjo, fiddle, Celtic penny whistle, and samples of Mississippi black gospel and Alabama white Sacred Harp choirs recorded by musicologist Alan Lomax. The result is an expansive, inclusive and often uplifting series of aural snapshots of America 2012. The class and culture war may rage, but Springsteen shows us common roots and common ground.
Unlike Working on a Dream, recorded in the midst of the post-Obama election hangover, Wrecking Ball finds Springsteen once again with a righteous cause to give the record focus: the Wall Street bailouts, the mortgage crisis, the disappearing middle class. The last album to find him so ablaze with purpose was 2007’s Magic, on which he traced the erosion of the American dream, of democracy itself, during the Bush years.
Magic often felt like a spiritual twin to Darkness on the Edge of Town, with the characters still searching for the Promised Land, desperately trying to hold onto faith, community and a kernal of their better selves in a country turned vicious. Wrecking Ball‘s spiritual twin is Nebraska, Springsteen’s stunning 1982 roots-folk awakening. Both records give voice to working people trying to remain honest and optimistic in hard times, to do the right thing, to find some reason to believe. And, as on Nebraska, there’s the sense of a whole socioeconomic class on the fraying edge of its resources and faith. The desperately insolvent narrator of “Atlantic City” from Nebraska sees no way out but to “do a little favor” for the mob. On “Easy Money,” from Wrecking Ball, a man and a woman get all dolled up for a night on the town to the accompaniment of Tyrell’s sprightly fiddle, but he’s packing a Smith & Wesson. “There’s nothing to it mister/ You won’t hear a sound/ When your whole world comes tumbling down/ And all them fat cats, they’ll just think it’s funny/ I’m goin’ on the town now, lookin’ for easy money.”
As bleak as this all might sound, the many reasons to believe on Wrecking Ball give the record a deeply joyous and angry heart that echoes back to one of Springsteen’s basic tenets: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” The rousing Celtic-punk battle cry “Death to My Hometown” urges us to rise up against the “robber barons” of Wall Street and the “greedy thieves who came around and ate the flesh of everything they found/ Whose crimes have gone unpunished now/ Who walk the streets as free men now.” (Springsteen’s performance of “Death to My Hometown” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on March 2, with the E Street Band and Tom Morello, blew the roof off the mutha.) A new arrangement of “Land of Hope and Dreams” (with Clarence’s solo spliced in from a live version of the song), taken at a slightly faster clip than the E Street Band has performed it in concert, affirms the principles of democracy this country was founded on, in defiance of the right-wing’s perversion of those founding values. And the gorgeous, uncharacterizable “Rocky Ground” (gospel-electronica? Folk-rap?), features a sweetly soothing vocal loop by backing singer Michelle Moore that’s like a balm of reassurance that hard times will pass.
The one misstep is the album’s first single, “We Take Care of Our Own.” (Seriously, who even thinks in terms of singles anymore?) It’s slicker than anything else on the album, and the vagueness of the lyrics — “wherever this flag is flown” leaves room for misinterpretation and misappropriation.
The political gives way to the personal on the title track: You didn’t think Springsteen was going to let the Big Man’s death go unremarked, did you? “Wrecking Ball” was written and first performed in 2009 as a tribute to the old Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, which was slated for demolition. But on the record, and, especially performed live on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on February 27, it reveals itself as a stomping Irish wake of a song, a monument to the Big Man, to the E Street Band, and as a “fuck you” to that great big wrecking ball of time and death. “Raise up your glasses/ And let me hear your voices call/ ‘Cause tonight all the dead are here/ So bring on your wrecking ball/ Bring on your wrecking ball/ C’mon and take your best shot/ Let me see what you got/ Bring on your wrecking ball.” That defiant chorus recalls a line from Springsteen’s eulogy for Clarence, which applies to the late E Street organist Danny Federici as well: “Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.”
The album’s last song, “We Are Alive,” continues this idea of the dead attaining immortality through the living. Over a Johnny Cash “Ring of Fire” mariachi chug, Springsteen sings in the unkillable voices of those who fought and died keeping the American Dream alive: striking railroad workers in 1877, victims of the Birmingham church bombing of 1963, Mexican laborers trying to cross the border through the desert. We stand on the shoulders of giant heroes, Springsteen is saying. And a merry chorus of the dead rise up to declare along with him, “We are alive!,” comforting and inspiring the rest of us to fight, and sing, another day.
© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape. 2012