Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball – Columbia/Sony Music 88691 94254 2, 61:47 [3/6/12] ****1/2:
(Bruce Springsteen – lead vocal, guitars, banjo, piano, organ, drums, percussion, loops, co-producer; Ron Aniello – co-producer, engineer, guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, loops, backing vocals, percussion, hurdy gurdy; Art Baron – euphonium, tuba (tracks 3-5, 9, 10), sousaphone, pennywhistle (track 13); Lilly Brown, Solomon Cobbs – backing vocals (track 10); Kevin Buell – drums and backing vocals (track 5); Matt Chamberlain – drums, percussion (tracks 3, 5, 8); Clarence Clemons – tenor saxophone ( tracks 7, 10); Clark Gayton – trombone (tracks 3, 4, 8-10); Charlie Giordano – accordion (track 12), piano, organ (tracks 3, 5, 7, 9-11, 13), celesta (track 13); Stan Harrison – clarinet, alto and tenor saxophone (tracks 3, 4, 8-10); Steve Jordan – percussion (track 2); Rob LeBret – electric guitar (track 7), backing vocals (tracks 5, 7, 8, 12, 13); Greg Leisz – banjo, mandolin, lap steel (tracks 8, 11); Darrell Leonard – trumpet, bass trumpet (track 11); Dan Levine – alto horn, euphonium (tracks 3, 4, 9, 10); Lisa Lowell – backing vocals (tracks 1-3, 6, 7, 10, 12); Ed Manion – tenor and baritone saxophone (tracks 3, 4, 8-10); Jeremy McCoy – bass violin (track 12); Cindy Mizelle – backing vocals (track 3); Michelle Moore – backing vocals (tracks 2, 9, 10), rapping (track 9); Tom Morello –guitar (tracks 4, 6); Marc Muller – pedal steel guitar (track 8); New York Chamber Consort (tracks 1, 4, 7); Clif Norrell – tuba (track 12); Clif Norrell, Ross Petersen – backing vocals (tracks 3, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13); Curt Ramm – trumpet, cornet (tracks 3, 4, 7-10); Mark Romatz – contra bassoon (track 12); Antoinette Savage – backing vocals (track 2); Patti Scialfa – backing vocals (tracks 1-3, 6, 7, 10-12), vocal arrangement (tracks 2, 6); Dan Shelly – bassoon (track 12); Soozie Tyrell – violin (tracks 2-7, 10-13), backing vocals (tracks 1-3, 6, 7, 10, 12, 13); Steven Van Zandt – backing vocals, mandolin (tracks 7, 10, 13); Victorious Gospel Choir – backing vocals (tracks 9-10); Max Weinberg – drums (tracks 7, 13))
It would be easy to dismiss Wrecking Ball as just another Bruce Springsteen album. Springsteen is close to the age when many of the working-class people he continues to sing and care about are nearing retirement. Except in this period of time, as anyone who reads the news headlines and perceives such things will have noticed, many have lost what was promised to them: jobs, family, homes, hopes and dreams. A cursory listen to Springsteen’s 17th release might result in the feeling he is treading water (something weighted against Bob Dylan, Ray Davies and others), but for those who pay attention can attest, Wrecking Ball is full of contrasts which prove Springsteen is still a potent songwriter who thinks about what it means to be down and out, or heading that way with few options.
Wrecking Ball has been issued in several configurations. The vinyl version has ten tracks and a CD of the same music. The digital download has two bonus cuts. The CD (which was used for this review) has the same two extras plus a booklet with artwork, photography, lyrics and notes. In a different era, Springsteen might have taken his Woody Guthrie-like material and produced a bracing acoustic project akin to Nebraska, an idea considered during the early stages of making Wrecking Ball. Instead, Springsteen wisely chose to blend previous musical styles he has used and some new ones: anthemic arena rock, an Irish-inclined approach, a soulful strut, gospel influences, acoustic folk, and even some hip-hop trimmings, thus utilizing his traditional tools of the trade while also tweaking them.
During Reagan’s presidential term, Springsteen wrote one of his most misunderstood anthems, “Born in the U.S.A.,” which some interpreted as patriotic rather than its true nature, an indictment and a reminder we don’t always take care of our own. That sentiment has not disappeared. Hard times still exist. Opener and first single “We Take Care of Our Own,” which rocks like any vintage E Street Band track, could be erroneously misheard by casual listeners due to a catchy chorus where Springsteen declares “We take care of our own.” But dig deeper and one will discover lyrics which comment about an America where basic assistance never materializes, with hints of Hurricane Katrina and more: “From the shotgun shack to the Superdome, there ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home.” Essentially, Springsteen proclaims we are supposed to care for others, not leave them to broken levees or smashed mortgages. And what happens when the cash is gone? Some don’t turn the other cheek but slap back, like the twosome in the fiddle-flecked rocker “Easy Money,” who decide to have some revenge on the fat cats after the couple’s world has spun out of control. They put on their nice clothes to go out on the night, with a pistol in tow: “You put on your coat, I’ll put on my hat, you put out the dog, I’ll put out the cat…I got a Smith & Wesson 38, I got a hellfire burning and I got me a date.”
But for some folks, hope persists no matter the odds leveled against them, which is the outlook which runs through the mid-tempo, brooding “Jack of All Trades,” although the narrator’s stance hardens when he angrily admits at the end he hates those who have caused his harsh providence, “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight.” During the song, Springsteen’s words are precisely punctuated by piano, violin, and the contorted guitar of former Rage Against the Machine member Tom Morello. There are other stand-outs. There is a heavy sprinkling of Irish influence (including pennywhistle and Sacred Harp singing) during “Death to My Hometown,” a heated protest piece which condemns Wall Street hustlers and the financial catastrophe to which Springsteen holds them responsible. “They destroyed our families’ factories and they took our homes,” Springsteen sings, “They left our bodies on the planks, the vultures picked our bones.” The same perspective filters through “Shackled and Drawn,” which maintains an Irish-slanted inspiration, where the main character expresses his dissatisfaction with his status quo, “Gambling man rolls the dice, workingman pays the bill, it’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill, up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong, down here below we’re shackled and drawn.”
The only time Springsteen slips a bit is on unpredictable “Rocky Ground.” Most of “Rocky Ground” echoes Springsteen’s preceding work, but features a brief rap created by Springsteen but sung by Michelle Moore, the first time Springsteen has put rapping on one of his records. On the plus side, the song has a moody arrangement with a gospel choir, and appropriate vocal loops which supplement the mix (the repeating line “I’m a soldier” comes from a congregational recording). The toned-down arrangement and religious/biblical imagery mirrors Springsteen’s theme of economic inequality but there is more optimism in the chorus: “There’s a new day coming.” But the mid-song rap seems awkward and frankly does not suit Springsteen’s style.
While Wrecking Ball is a new project, a few numbers have been floating around for a while. The upbeat rocker “Land of Hope and Dreams” (which adds a gospel choir who supply excerpts from Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”) was composed sometime in 1998 or early 1999 and performed on the 1999 Reunion Tour with the E Street Band. A studio version was initially recorded in 2002 during the sessions for The Rising album but never released. A live rendition, which is noticeably harder-hitting, was included on the compilation The Essential Bruce Springsteen, but this discretely different arrangement, and in particular the gospel chorus and the contributions from saxophonist Clarence Clemons (who passed away in June, 2011), provides “Land of Hope and Dreams” with a richer emotional significance. Clemons is also heard on one of two bonuses, the prominent Irish-oriented “American Land,” (a swinging, Pogues-esque immigration tale concerning a mythic America where beer flows from the faucets and diamonds lie in the gutters), which was written in 2006 and recorded for We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, but never released. “American Land” was played throughout the subsequent Seeger Sessions tour as well as two later E Street Band tours and it fits in well against the rest of the material. The title track, “Wrecking Ball,” was penned in 2009 prior to some Springsteen and E Street Band performances to commemorate Giants Stadium, which was demolished in 2010. “Wrecking Ball” is a fine example of how Springsteen sustains his archetypal songwriting tropes with a slight twist: the tune is sung through the actual stadium’s point of view, where the speaker urges, “C’mon and take your best shot, let me see what you got, bring on your wrecking ball.”
TrackList: We Take Care of Our Own; Easy Money; Shackled and Drawn; Jack of All Trades; Death to My Hometown; This Depression; Wrecking Ball; You’ve Got It; Rocky Ground; Land of Hope and Dreams; We Are Alive; bonus tracks: Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale); American Land.
A Texas singer-songwriter’s legend lives on with this journey of personal discovery and anecdotal cleverness.