Bruce Springsteen

Wrecking Ball

Written by: CM on 04/03/2012 21:37:06

Bruce Springsteen needs no introduction: he's "the Boss," a living legend who is renowned not only for the strength of his best records ("Born to Run" is my all time favorite album), or for the cultural ubiquity of his most successful ("Born in the USA," which spawned seven massive hit singles), but also for his ability to tap into the psyches of the average American everyman, not to mention his life-affirming live shows, which often stretch on towards the marathon length of three hours or more. Upon the death of legendary saxophonist Clarence Clemons last year, many questioned whether Springsteen would ever make another record, or whether the E-Street Band would ever tour again. They needn't have worried about either of those points, as another worldwide E-Street Tour is brewing for the upcoming spring and summer months, and as Springsteen drops "Wrecking Ball," his 17th studio record, this week. While many associate Springsteen with the huge, anthemic sound of his biggest masterworks ("Born to Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town") or with the faux-patriotic 80s pop of "Born in the U.S.A.," "Wrecking Ball" is a more experimental record, incorporating everything from his classic rock influences to Irish/celtic rave-ups, with a tad of hip hop thrown in for good measure. The resulting record is a masterpiece, the best and most lively collection of songs Springsteen has put together in decades (since "U.S.A.", at least), and the best album of the year so far.

I wasn't a fan of Bruce's last effort, 2009's "Working on a Dream," where the Boss got a little too content with the state of his country, and as a result, a little too boring. George Bush was out, Barack Obama in, and suddenly, the angry political songs of 2007's "Magic" had faded away. What was left was arguably the weakest set of songs of Springsteen's career, something even he seemed to realize, largely avoiding the album on the subsequent tour and turning instead to his classic material. The end of that tour seemed like a fitting finale for the illustrious career of the E-Street Band, and indeed, upon the death of Clemons, it was certain that things would never be quite the same, no matter their course of action. "Wrecking Ball," although it includes contributions by many members of his band, is more in the tradition of Springsteen's solo efforts (the cult classic "Nebraska"), and several songs, like the morose narrative of "Jack of All Trades" (complete with a cathartic guitar solo by Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine fame), or the mostly acoustic "You've Got It," wouldn't have been completely out of place amongst that album's sparse 8-track recordings. Meanwhile, one listen to the raucous choruses of songs like "Easy Money," "Shackled and Drawn" or especially "Death to My Hometown" will reveal the plethora of folk and celtic influences Springsteen adopts here, often reminiscent of his equally experimental work on last decade's "The Seeger Sessions" and "Live in Dublin" releases. And then there's "Rocky Ground," a clever rewrite of his Oscar winner "Streets of Philadelphia," complete with an out-of-left-field rap section by gospel singer Michelle Moore; needless to say, it's quite a change of pace for the 62 year old Springsteen.

But even amongst all of the experimentation, at its heart, "Wrecking Ball" is thoroughly a Bruce Springsteen record. Take the masterful title track, which juxtaposes a flawless singalong chorus with some of Springsteen's best lyrics to become his most epic anthem since "Badlands," or "This Depression," which could have fit on "The Rising" were it not for the anguished guitar echoes that permeate the second half. Meanwhile, the fist pumping rock 'n' roll of first the single, "We Take Care of Our Own," fits comfortably in the wheelhouse of post millennial Bruce, with a lyric that stands to become his most misunderstood political statement since "Born in the U.S.A." Perhaps best of all is "Land of Hope and Dreams," where the ghost of Clarence Clemons floats through one of his last recorded sax solos, recalling a million brilliant moments from the Springsteen catalog and providing the album with its most sublimely emotional moment. "This train carries saints and sinners, this train carries losers and winners," Springsteen sings on the song's joyful chorus, almost like he's paraphrasing the words inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. It's a moment that could come across as cheesy or heavy handed in lesser hands, but if there's a guy on the planet who can pull it off, it's the Boss, and pull it off he does.

"Wrecking Ball" certainly has the goods as far as the songs are concerned, but it wouldn't work the way it does if Springsteen didn't have the conviction. If "Working on a Dream" was the sound of a rock star with nothing left to say, "Wrecking Ball" is the sound of an American who thought his darkest days were behind him, only to realize that things had never stopped getting worse. His economy a wreck, his people unemployed and unhappy, and as many broken dreams and wasted lives scatter across his nation as ever, Springsteen turns around and writes his most scorching, angry, and heartbreaking album in years, but at the same time, it's also among his most resilient and life-affirming. At the end of "Darkness on the Edge of Town," Springsteen's characters were resigning themself to what their lives had become on the wrong side of the American dream, but here, those same characters are fighting back. The art of the protest album has faded in recent years, but Springsteen, always the voice of the everyman, brings it back and delivers one that is certain to mean something to an awful lot of people. In the album's final moments, on the closer "We Are Alive," Springsteen delivers both a eulogy for his fallen brother and a rallying cry for the downtrodden people of his country. There is a distinct sense of things having come full circle, not just for the record, but for Springsteen's career as a whole, but with the amount of life and passion he showcases on this record, it's not difficult to imagine him making music for another 15 or 20 years. A terrific set of songs, a summation of a brilliant career, both in sound and theme, and a effortlessly affecting message, "Wrecking Ball" is a late career masterpiece from one of the most significant musical figures in rock and roll history, and is just about as good a record as anyone is making these days: I seriously doubt I'll hear a better album this year.

Download: "Wrecking Ball," "Land of Hope and Dreams," "Death To My Hometown"
For The Fans Of: Older Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, The Gaslight Anthem, Van Morrison

Release Date 06.03.12
Columbia Records

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