And completing a triptych of Bruce-related posts, here’s our review of Wrecking Ball, published in the current HP:
Let us now praise angry old men. Bruce Springsteen’s 17th album Wrecking Ball might be broadly described as set of 21st century protest songs inflamed by white collar grand larceny. Its memories are long – Bruce has mined these subjects for almost 40 years, in songs like ‘Badlands’, ‘The River’, ‘Atlantic City’ and ‘Youngstown’ – and its sense of context wide: from dust bowl refugees to Mexican migrants, from the flood necropolis of New Orleans to Detroit’s autogeddon, from the Great Depression of the 1920s to the Second Great Depression of (it looks like) the 2020s. Springsteen has long cited John Ford’s film adaptation of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath as a totem. In the current climate, that book looks like a holy text: “The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
In musical terms, Wrecking Ball utilises a core team of E-Streeters plus guests (Matt Chamberlain, Steve Jordan, the New York Chamber Consort) and marries Seeger Sessions rootenannies to Magic-era Omniplex rock. It also invokes the spirit of Woody via Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, who appeared on a searing ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ at the R&R Hall of Fame a couple of years back, and also plays on a couple of tunes here. If the Seeger Sessions campaign countered neo-con definitions of US patriotism with a secret history of American socialist anthems (and lest we forget, Steinbeck was decried as a communist when The Grapes of Wrath was published), the new album juxtaposes barroom bawlers, steak-and-onions rockers, country laments, gospel and even hip-hop soul, as well as recalling Bruce’s recent sorties with folk-punk cut-ups the Dropkick Murphys and second-generation heartland rockers like the Gaslight Anthem.
The curtain raiser, ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, might be the quintessential Springsteen anthem, laden as it is with bells, strings and Searchers riffs, but it’s one balanced on a knife edge between faith and despair. It’s a man singing a prayer that he knows is a lie, or a lie he’s trying to convert to a prayer. It’s also a great hook because it’s an ambiguous line: it could be Tom Joad’s soliloquy, a civil rights slogan, a mobster’s threat, or a blood vow issued by one of Daniel Woodrell’s Ozarks woodsmen. Here Springsteen hitches one good phrase to an unchained melody and leaves it at that: the verses are almost arbitrary, unfinished, fragments of a map that leads from the shotgun shack to the Superdome. Ultimately, it’s a song that functions as both campfire hymn and middle finger to robber barons bailed out by legislative cronies, and sounds for all the world like Bruce covering Arcade Fire covering Bruce.
Lest we get too rosy-eyed, the guy in ‘Easy Money’ could be one of Jim Thompson’s drifters and grifters, a man whose conscience has been silenced by the realisation that the game is rigged, so if the banks can rob with a pen, he can steal with a gun. The dirty gospel of ‘Shackled And Drawn’ is a tougher, rootsier version of the songs revisited on 2010’s Darkness deluxe set, the son looking at the price his old man’s paid on the factory’s killing floor and deciding it’s not worth it, that the dignity of labour is a myth which amounts to no more than basic wage slavery without union protection or health benefits. Similarly, the rabble-rousing ‘Death To My Hometown’, like Joe Ely fronting the Pogues, might be located in some latter day Deadwood, except this is a place convulsed not by the birth pangs of an empire under construction, but the death throes of a national dream.
By contrast, ‘Jack of All Trades’ is way more sombre, a slow country piano ballad featuring a character who might be Boxer from Animal Farm vowing that whatever the colour of adversity, it’s nothing that can’t be solved by hard labour and endurance. But just as the Civil War horns seem to write him off as way too stoic for his own good, Darwinian dogmeat, he takes off his proletariat hat and admits: “If I had me a gun I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight/I’m a jack of all trades… We’ll be all right.” Further in, the title tune, originally a cowpunk bruiser written to commemorate the pulling down of Giant’s Stadium, has been scrubbed up and gentrified with Rising strings: “All our victories and glories/Have turned into parking lots…/But hard times come/And hard times go/And hard times come/And hard times go… Just to come again.”
Complaints? A few. The instrumentation isn’t nearly as gritty as the voice, which has matured into a grizzly bear growl, and Ron Aiello’s production can err on the shiny side. Occasionally the listener wishes Bruce paid less attention to state of the art niceties and laid the songs down live, mucky boots, stubble, warts and all. But – and it’s a big but – these rhythms and refrains have been road tested down the centuries, and they’re not about to fail us yet.
Wrecking Ball turns epical in the last act. ‘Rocky Ground’ references Christ booting the moneychangers out of the temple over a hip-hop loop and Grammy-gospel vocal parts, and the sweeping ‘Land of Hope And Dreams’, played live for a decade, here serves as Clarence’s final fanfare, a round trip that takes in Bound For Glory, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘This Train’ and the Impressions’ ‘People Get Ready’, imagining underclass America as a Whitman-esque ship of whores and gamblers, lost souls and sinners, losers and winners. Then, to temper the exuberance, the closing tune ‘We Are Alive’ presents Tom Joad as a whistling shape-shifter reborn through the centuries, set to an Irish folk rag backed by mariachi brass and twangy telecaster lifted from ‘Ring of Fire’.
And that’s it. As a set of songs, as a statement, there’s no denying Wrecking Ball has a job to do, and Springsteen goes about that job with an evangelist’s fervour. No one else around is singing to the times with quite the same conviction, historical perspective, or spleen. The poor are always with us, the record says, because the factors that permit economic oppression are forever recurring. Now what are we going to do about it?