The first thing I heard about Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, Wrecking Ball, came from a friend of mine who said, “I don’t like Springsteen, but I liked this until I found out it was him, so I guess it’s good.”
It’s not that Wrecking Ball doesn’t sound like Bruce Springsteen, because it does, but I take that comment as a sign that even if you think you don’t like The Boss, the guy puts out some damn good rock and roll and can be hard to deny. He’s a performer who demands the listener’s full attention and very rarely lets them down.
Wrecking Ball is an aggressive album, full of anthems for the working man, which is standard Springsteen, and songs of protest with a harsh focus on American politicians and businessmen, which is not so typical. The economy is front and center above all other issues, and Springsteen pulls no punches. “Send the robber barons straight to hell,” he sings on “Death To My Hometown.” He’s covered this ground before, but he’s never been this blunt and unrestrained.
Wrecking Ball is however just as much an ode to America’s middle class as it is a protest against “them fat cats” who “just think its funny”. By the album’s end, Springsteen has moved past complaining and onto a healing process, making a point of ending the experience with hope and not despair. It’s this second act that keeps the experience firmly within the framework of what one expects from Bruce, and the two halves combine to make a great record.
While Springsteen has addressed these issues in the past, in the 80s he could more easily point to his blue collar upbringing and history to lend credibility to his work. He still speaks at times from a personal perspective–on “Death to My Hometown” in particular–but by and large this is a much more zoomed out look at the nation as a whole. He’s still a stalwart champion of the American people, but if once he was a leader at a rally, he is now much more of a politician.
I said earlier that Wrecking Ball sounds very much like a typical Bruce Springsteen album, and this is true, but it also pulls off a fresh and current feeling. Springsteen doesn’t veer very far from what he’s done for about the past 40 years, but modern influences and styles do make their way into this recording, and their impact is felt throughout. You can hear echoes of Arcade Fire in several places, as well as the thumping celtic charge of the Dropkick Murphys. Tom Morello is a featured performer on two tracks, and his guitar is an unmistakable asset on “This Depression.”
As real as the issues being addressed here are, and as serious about them as Springsteen no doubt is, the open embrace of modern styles and influences has perhaps the unintended side effect of lending a strangely poppy feeling to certain tracks, potentially taking away some of the impact for certain listeners. Wrecking Ball’s seemingly conscious effort to be hip and modern can seem a little forced, and it might have been a bit of a misfire that this particular album, probably one of Springsteen’s most gritty in terms of content, has what may be the most placid sound of them all.
There is no doubt that this is an important album, both to Bruce Springsteen and to his fans, who are these days experiencing many of the same struggles they were when he first rose to be their voice. Springsteen does a great job of airing his grievances here, but importantly, he delivers the promise that we can and will pull ourselves up once again.