My first confession: I am no Springsteen fan. Blue-denim, blue-collar, swaggering US stadium rock was never my thing. But this is Springsteen with a bolder, blunter agenda and some new musical styles in which to frame it.
There was always the angry Springsteen; Born in the USA is not, if you listen to the lyrics, a celebratory anthem but an accusatory, table-banging protest song. Well, now you’ve got an entire album of them. I’m no expert but this may be the angriest Springsteen album yet. It’s full of energetic, stage-stomping tunes, full of big bands, big choirs and big driving drum beats. The angry polemic is smuggled none too subtly into rollicking rock tunes. But then you weren’t expecting subtle from Springsteen were you?
There’s a raucous mix of Cajun folk, accordion, banjo and Mariachi brass to go with the guitar licks. There’s Salvation Army bands and Gospel choir, Irish ceilidh and old fashioned blues. Add a modern twist of samples, loops and a little urban hip-hop. Springsteen’s older voice, always with that gravelly edge, now has touch of Tom Waits. Surprisingly, there’s pure ‘trademark’ Springsteen vocals on Rocky Ground, sitting alongside a middle-eight rap.
Just look down the song titles: This Depression, Shackled and Drawn, Death to My Hometown, and the titular track Wrecking Ball, in which the Giants stadium demolition becomes a symbol of so much more destruction to get angry about; “send the robber barons straight to hell.” This is the tale of economic destruction, the American Dream turned to dust – Springsteen: J’Accuse. An indictment of big money, Easy Money is about Wall Street, not street crime. There’s also a strong thread of heartland faith and spirituality, the kind that people turn to when times are hard, reinforced by recurring samples of street-preachers.
Even in the down-tempo, post-economic apocalypse Jack of All Trades (a working-class waltz, striving on through “blood and treasure”), even though there’s some hope in sight, the Boss is still angry – “if I had a gun I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight.” So many tracks are a tribute to the American working family’s strength and resourcefulness. You do wonder where it all went wrong in the elegiac Land of Hopes and Dreams, an evocation of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. The righteous dead return for We are Alive; civil rights activists and union protesters call the rest of us complacent and molly-coddled masses to action.
After seventeen albums, this is an artist wearing his confidence as well as his heart on his sleeve. What’s impressed me is that Springsteen refuses just to coast along on his reputation. There’s no sign of him going soft, all the more confrontational and turbulent as the album progresses.
You could counter that this is all a bit rich coming form a man who is, well, rich. Touring in a private jet isn’t exactly de-rigeour for the Average Joes he’s calling on to march forth and man the barricades. I think we’ll forgive the New Jersey boy for taking his piece of the American dream over thirty years; after all, he’s admitted that dream, that contract with government and free enterprise, is broken for many Americans. This is one for the peoples of the heartland.
This is my second confession; with this album, I may be a convert and a fan. RC
Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball (Columbia Records)
1. “We Take Care of Our Own”
2. “Easy Money”
3. “Shackled and Drawn”
4. “Jack of All Trades”
5. “Death to My Hometown”
6. “This Depression”
7. “Wrecking Ball”
8. “You’ve Got It”
9. “Rocky Ground”
10. “Land of Hope and Dreams”
11. “We Are Alive”
12. “Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale)”
13. “American Land”