Released March 6th
I'll forego my usual expository opening paragraph and dive straight into a track-by-track review of Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen's 17th studio album. Ratings for each song are in parentheses.
"We Take Care Of Our Own" (7) Wrecking Ball's opener is the most representative song of what would be considered Springsteen's signature E Street Band sound, defined by a rich musical tapestry that spotlights loud drums, piano, organ, and gritty guitars. It's a solid, safe pick for the album's first single and a bit of a fake-out in terms of what turns out to be Wrecking Ball's diverse musical range. Lyrically, it tackles the deterioration of the American Dream, a topical thread that runs throughout the album. While Springsteen's urgency comes through, this one packs a little more punch when played live, as was demonstrated during its live debut opening the Grammys a few weeks back (shame about Springsteen's unfortunate choice of words during the song's intro, though, as he threw out his familiar "Are you alive out there?" line to the Whitney Houston-mourning audience). Despite the song's familiarity, it interestingly only has two E Street Band members appearing on it, with background vocal contributions from guitarist/backing vocalist (and Springsteen's wife) Patti Scialfa and guitarist/backing vocalist/violinist Soozie Tyrell. I found myself surprised at how sparingly the rest of the band was used on Wrecking Ball, if they were used at all. Completely absent from the album's musician credits are E Street Band members Garry Tallent (bass), Steve Van Zandt (guitar/mandolin/backing vocals), Roy Bittan (piano), and Nils Lofgren (guitar/banjo/backing vocals). Frankly, I don't quite get not making full use (or at least some use) of one of the best rock bands around, especially when, for example, a lot of the piano parts (especially on this track) sound very much like Bittan's playing style anyway. Other factors, such as scheduling conflicts, could be at work here as well, but it would seem this is just another example of Springsteen once again working with outside musicians to keep things fresh for himself.
"Easy Money" (8) The song's boot stompin' and fiddle playin' upbeat sound is an extension of the Celtic and folk influences explored on his mid-2000s Seeger Sessions band outing, but the musical merriment (also featuring plenty of hand claps and Springsteen whoops) belies the track's dark lyrical tone. In fact, the juxtaposition between the two is downright fascinating. Fuelled by "a hellfire burning", the main character decides to pull him and his missus out of their financial straits with the help of a Smith & Wesson 38 and a target of "all them fat cats", an obvious reference to greedy bankers. Sure, Springsteen has covered this ground before (witness the crime-planning anti-heroes of "Atlantic City" and "Meeting Across The River"), but it's a thematic construct that suits the dire economic times that Wrecking Ball speaks to.
"Shackled And Drawn" (8) Another spirited number cut from the same musical cloth as "Easy Money", with an added Cajun influence. Once again, the bitter lyrics of this protest anthem are partially obscured by the track's musically boisterous foundation; this time, Springsteen equates freedom with the right to work and adds some further digs at Wall Street gluttony. I could have done without the over-the-top gospel testifying over the song's fade-out from singer Cindy Mizelle, though.
"Jack Of All Trades" (8) The song tells the story of a frustrated and unemployed labourer trying to convince himself and his partner that they can withstand their hardships. Anchored by a simplistic piano line and some beautiful horn and mandolin touches, this waltzing ballad is a powerful homage to Springsteen's heavy 50s and 60s-era soul influence. Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello adds a killer outro guitar solo that tastefully eschews technical razzle dazzle for emotive force, emulating the less-is-more fretboard style of Springsteen himself.
"Death To My Hometown" (9) Hmm, The Boss is really pissed at bankers, as they get the fourth call-out in as many songs. That's okay, though...they deserve it. Springsteen's ire is expressed in lyrics that comment on the stealthy nature of the recent mortgage crisis, using analogous Civil War cannon ball and powder flash imagery to cleverly illustrate that the wholesale demolition of people's lives needn't come only from more overt forms of destruction. Whether or not Springsteen intentionally sought to reference the seen-better-times "My Hometown" from his Born In The U.S.A. album with this song title is unclear, but I wouldn't be surprised. Musically, this Celtic rock stomper is one of the most energetic on the album, propelled by a martial drumbeat and some kickass penny whistle accompaniment. Who knew a penny whistle could be kickass? One of the song's most interesting aspects, which I've surprisingly not seen mentioned in the many reviews I've read of this album, is its great use of group background vocals that seems to borrow more from African music than Irish. This track stands out as one of the highlights in terms of the stellar musicianship, songwriting, and production on Wrecking Ball. Producer Ron Aniello (with additional production help from Springsteen) deserves special mention for his direction and influence in the making of Wrecking Ball.
"This Depression" (8) Another powerful ballad, once again fortified by a couple of simple, but gut-wrenching Morello solos that are bridged by an ethereal mid-song interlude. The track's booming drums are offset by piano and ghostly background vocals that have an alluring, almost synthesizer-sounding quality to them. The song features a little more than I'd like of the intentionally off-key singing (à la Dylan) that Springsteen has occasionally dabbled with in the twilight era of his career. The "depression" of the title is used in a literal and figurative context.
"Wrecking Ball" (8) Like "We Take Care Of Our Own", this is a classic Springsteen rocker, one of only three such tracks on the album. When the song made its debut at New Jersey's Giants Stadium during his 2009 tour, it seemed little more than a serviceable tribute to the soon-to-be-demolished legendary venue that helped propagate and reinforce the Springsteen legend. However, repeat listens and a more expansive studio sound elevate it to something significantly more special (the eventual gospel revival-stomp tempo upswing, enhanced by a horn section, really gets the toe tapping). Interlaced within a uniquely abstract lyrical perspective that addresses the listener from the actual stadium's perspective ("I was raised outta steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago/Through the mud and the beer, the blood and the cheers, I've seen champions come and go") are lines that adhere to the album's themes of resilience, defiance ("So if you've got the guts mister, yeah if you got the balls/If you think it's your time, then step over the line and bring on your wrecking ball"), and mortality. The song's only weakness is that it does sound a tad on the repetitive side; at just under six minutes, a brief trim would tighten things up a little better (yeah, like Bruce friggin' Springsteen needs to be taking studio tips from me). The title track is one of two songs that feature some of the last recorded work of integral E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died last June. Oddly, he's credited with a solo here, although I'll be damned if I can hear it, and I've listened to this album a good 15 or so times now. His sax is likely mixed in with the rest of the horn section, but it's just strange that he gets a solo credit, especially considering the significance of Clemons' final contributions to a Springsteen album (assuming there's nothing else in the vaults).
"You've Got It" (4) Unquestionably, this is Wrecking Ball's worst song, really the only dud in the collection. Perhaps it's a coincidence that it's also the only non-serious/non-message track, perhaps not. Lyrically and musically, this is nothing more than a forgettable trifle that awkwardly sticks out amongst the strong surrounding material. Its only redeeming quality: some smooth slide guitar work.
"Rocky Ground" (9) The album's most ambitious track, with a distinct correlation back to 1994s "Streets Of Philadelphia", with its haunting tone, drum loop percussion, and spare arrangement. The lyrics contain some of the most direct religion-based wordplay Springsteen's ever released ("Forty days and nights of rain washed this land/Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand"), words that take on even more power when the music is augmented by a powerful assist from the Victorious Gospel Choir. The song's biggest gamble is the short rap section by gospel singer Michelle Moore; advance notice of the rapping on this track had many hardcore Springsteen fans up in arms and apprehensive. It works brilliantly, though, partly because Moore delivers her words in a tasteful, understated manner. Moore is also prominently featured throughout the rest of the song delivering a sweetly sung "We've been travelin' over rocky ground" refrain. An oddity: the recurring sample of a 1942 Alan Lomax field recording of the Church of God in Christ Congregation in Clarksdale, Mississippi features a man that sounds exactly like Van Zandt. I was amazed when I looked at the album's liner notes and discovered it wasn't him.
"Land Of Hope And Dreams" (10) The song debuted on Springsteen's 1999-2000 reunion tour with the E Street Band and finally finds a proper home on a studio album. One of the highlights of HBO's Live In New York City special (available on DVD/Blu-ray and absolutely essential viewing for any Springsteen fan, even more so than the also outstanding London Calling: Live From Hyde Park DVD/Blu-ray I reviewed here), the track is Wrecking Ball's strongest. At seven minutes long, it's only a couple of minutes shorter than the live version, but never wastes a note. Opening and closing with lyrical references to Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready", the song's theme of salvation makes it another natural candidate for the choir treatment, once again ably fulfilled by the Victorious Gospel Choir. One of their members begins the song with a short a cappella solo section and I was once again completely fooled - the vocals are a dead ringer for Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave fame, who Springsteen has worked with several times in the past few years). I also swear that once again, the uncredited Van Zandt can be heard singing and talking at the end of the song - maybe Springsteen's just screwing with us in those liner notes. This track has so many plusses musically, especially the fantastic mandolin accompaniment, but its centrepiece is undoubtedly a typically huge-sounding sax solo from Clemons that packs a major punch, for reasons both musical and sentimental. I'm extremely familiar with this track, having heard that live version dozens of times over the years, so I'm aware of when Clemons' solo comes in, but I was completely caught off-guard when first taking in this version. For me, listening to a new Bruce Springsteen album for the first time is a significant occurrence, just because he's my favourite musical artist. That first listen will be a no-distractions, headphones-on, musical experience, and Wrecking Ball was no exception. I was just so caught up in all of that by the time I got to this track that, combined with the fact that Clemons (despite what the liner notes say) doesn't really have a musical presence on the preceding nine songs, it resulted in his solo really sneaking up on me. In fact, between the sheer uplifting power of the song and the emotional implications from The Big Man's passing, I'm not ashamed to admit that I was actually moved to tears. The studio version of "Land Of Hope And Dreams" transforms an already great song into something even better - I dare say this may be one of the best pieces of music Springsteen has ever put out.
"We Are Alive" (9) One of the most interesting album tracks, although "Land Of Hope And Dreams" seems like the more logical choice to have closed the album. "We Are Alive" evokes memories of the similarly spaghetti western-sounding "Outlaw Pete" from Springsteen's last album; this one has less of an epic quality, but doesn't skimp in the department of musical grandness. The song opens with Springsteen singing and whistling over a lone campfire-style acoustic guitar strum, alluding to the stripped-down folk influence that permeated his acoustic albums Devils And Dust and The Ghost Of Tom Joad, albums which had their moments, but would definitely not be on my list of favourite Springsteen works. That musical spareness soon gives way to a full palette of sounds, though: banjo, a bouncing bass line, hand claps, thundering timpanis, heavily reverbed and tremoloed electric guitar, accordion, mandolin, Mariachi-style horns, and a shuffling light touch from E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg, whose only other appearance on Wrecking Ball is on the title track. The song shrewdly uses the melody of Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire" as its foundation, set over lyrics speaking for the dead and commemorating Americans who died fighting for their beliefs, or were trying to improve their way of life. Clemons' spirit undeniably lives on in lines like "And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark/Our souls and spirits rise/To carry the fire and light the spark/To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart".
Deluxe Edition bonus tracks (not factored into rating score): "Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale)" is deadly dull, with a plodding pace and probably one of the most unlikeable, off-key vocal performances I've ever heard from Springsteen. He wasn't wrong in relegating this one to "not up to regular album snuff" status. "American Land", on the other hand, would have felt right at home on Wrecking Ball. The lively Irish jig has been around for a few years now in his live shows, frequently as a concert closer, and appeared as a live bonus track on the American Land Edition reissue of his 2006 We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions album. It's a marvelous and exceptionally fun song, and the energy displayed in the live version has been admirably captured on this studio version.
Wrecking Ball lives partially up to the pre-release buzz of it finding Springsteen more pissed off than he's been in years, but that frustration and angst in the lyrics is muted (although not to the point of ineffectiveness) by the frequently raucous nature of the diverse music that those words keep company with. It's a testament to Springsteen's blue-collar roots and groundedness that he can still tap into the despair of the disenfranchised and realistically convey their suffering through his work, despite the fact the filthy-rich rock icon is now decades removed from such worries and hardships himself. Critics and disgruntled fans still holding him to Born To Run-level standards can say a lot about Springsteen, but at age 62 and still brimming with honesty and passion, they can't accuse him of going through the motions on his newest effort.