“Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea,” Bruce Springsteen asks on the anthemic opener of his seventeenth release in a forty-year career. He bellows the question over and over again, trying to find the answer but to no avail. The “promised land,” Springsteen loved has been lost. It sits broken down on a back-road somewhere in the heartland, choking in the dust. On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen tries to find an answer to that all-important question anyway he can, tracking it down with dogged determination.
“We Take Care of Our Own,” serves as a masterful introduction to Bruce’s rediscovery of America and stands as one of his strongest openers in years. Musically it resembles a large chunk of Magic, a no frills rocker with a captivating chorus. Springsteen’s mantra of “we take care of our own,” is less a statement of the present, more a sobering look back at the past. The nation that welcomed everyone with open arms has long since vanished.
"We Take Care of Our Own
Given how fragile our country has grown since Bruce dropped Working on a Dream in 2009, it’s no surprise he talks at length about our current economic situation. Where Working on a Dream was starry-eyed mythologizing of the new era of politics, Wrecking Ball is a retreat to the work of Nebraska, small-town citizens clinging to their routines just to escape the strains of daily-life. On the feet-stomping, hand-clapping “Easy Money,” Springsteen imagines robbing all the “fat cats,” deeming it the perfect date. The jaunty “Shackled and Drawn,” name-checks “bankers’s hill,” as “The Boss” rises each day to put his nose to the grindstone.
This us against them fat-cat talk paints the record in a dark hue and in “Jack of All Trades,” Springsteen ups the ante, promising to “shoot the bastards on sight.” On this slow-burner, Springsteen becomes “the jack of all trades, master of none,” knowing that in this economic environment it’s the best shot he’s got at work. “We’ll be alright,” he sings over a delicate piano figure with weary-confidence. Elsewhere, Springsteen recalls The River, avowing that we “stood the drought, now we’ll stand the flood.” Where the river was dry, it’s now run over the banks, drowning many Americans. The searing solo from guitar-wizard Tom Morello seals the deal on the sobering song and is a high point of the album.
It’s worth mentioning that this record is one of Springsteen’s most successful marriages of music to message. “Death to My Hometown,” counts itself as one of several songs that comes through as an Irish sing-along. The raucous numbers are the embodiment of “misery loves company,” the depressed and defeated brought together by a few beers and a common enemy. However, a larger than life ghost haunts this album, by way of E-Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons. With the “Big Man’s” death in June of 2011, Springsteen lost his close-friend and foil. On previous downbeat tracks Clemons’ solos were cathartic, welcome releases from the shackles Springsteen’s songs put on us. On Wrecking Ball the darkness can become overwhelming at times, tracks like “This Depression” altogether blotting out Springsteen’s “sunny days.”
Nowhere is the balance of message and music better than the title-track, which I readily count as Springsteen’s greatest in a decade plus. Here Springsteen is stunningly defiant, begging all naysayers “take your best shot.” Even with a bloodied lip and bruised face, Springsteen staggers to his feet, resolving to never fall to fear. Max Weinberg’s in-the-pocket drumming astutely accents Springsteen’s pleas and Clemons’ understated sax blasts are a youthful liberation, transporting us back to a simpler-time.
Much like the world we live in, not everything about this record is perfect and Springsteen can’t spin gold from everything he’s given here. “Rocky Ground,” though admirably ambitious with shimmering organ and soulful choruses, fires in too many directions and Bruce can’t seem to pull it together. “You’ve Got It,” similarly stalls, reading as a cast-off from 2002’s The Rising. Springsteen rescues the record on the penultimate track “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Out of all the tunes here, it has the strongest feeling of an actual E-Street song. The ghost of Clarence Clemons returns and he unleashes a solo halfway through that hearkens back to “Jungleland.” The epic swells as Springsteen’s train barrels down the tracks, welcoming “saint and sinner” alike on board. The subtle strumming of “We Are Alive,” is an updated take of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” for a new generation of outcasts. With his final words Springsteen exhorts the starving souls of Americans to sleep easy, when they wake up the nightmare will be over.
“Hard times come and hard times go,” Bruce reminds us on the aforementioned title-track. We’ve seen this type of trouble before and we’ll see it again. What’s changed since Bruce last took on an America he couldn’t seem to understand is that we are no longer one nation. Between two wars, a recession, depression, and general uncertainty about the state of our union, we’ve fragmented into millions of pieces. On the bonus track “American Land,” we no longer welcome the people dying to get here with open arms. We’ve grown disillusioned, cold, and cynical. Springsteen’s latest release may not be perfect, no one would confuse it with Born to Run, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a re-affirming record in a time when the voice of reason is increasingly silent. On Wrecking Ball, his message is loud and clear and we need it now more than ever.
"Land of Hopes and Dreams"