Bruce Springsteen’s much-anticipated new studio album Wrecking Ball is — much as all the advance hype has suggested — a somewhat radical left turn for the artist, both musically and quite literally in the case of the lyrics. But it is also nowhere near the huge departure some of those early dispatches from the recording studio may have led some to believe.
Wrecking Ball is still instantly recognizable as a Bruce Springsteen album. Reports using words like “experimental,” “loops” and “hip hop beats” to describe these songs — while not entirely off-base — don’t mean so much that Bruce has adopted some new-fangled, “hippity-hop, ya’ don’t stop” type of sound.
Instead, Springsteen has simply expanded upon, and added new dimensions to the folk, blues, country and especially gospel influences that were always there anyway.
Those political lyrics you’ve been hearing so much about are likewise nowhere near as angry as you may have heard. Oh sure, there’s some talk about shooting a few robber barons and bankers here and there. But for all the tension brought upon the circumstances of the characters of these songs by tough economic times, an undercurrent of hope and redemption never lies too far underneath it.
What is somewhat new here though, are all the religious references.
Springsteen’s Catholic upbringing has surfaced from time to time in his lyrics over the years, of course. But the characters in most of his songs have more often found their salvation by taking a road paved by personal grit and determination, than with churches or crosses.
Here, on songs like “Land Of Hope And Dreams,” faith is not only rewarded, but presented as an absolutely necessary element of the journey. On Wrecking Ball, the class struggle also becomes a spiritual one in the most overt way ever heard on a Bruce Springsteen album. Jesus is name checked often, and the gospel choirs and church rhythms only serve to further underscore the point.
In fact, for an artist who has never really had a particularly broad fanbase in the African-American community, this may be Bruce Springsteen’s “blackest” sounding record to date.
But for all of that, Wrecking Ball is also a logical extension of the broad cinematic scope Bruce Springsteen has always brought to his greatest work. If Springsteen made his “West Side Story” or “Rebel Without A Cause” with Born To Run, a decent argument could be mounted that he has been likewise trying to make his “Grapes Of Wrath” ever since with albums like Nebraska and The Ghost Of Tom Joad (quite literally in the case of the latter).
On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen takes the cottonfield mantra of negro spirituals, the populist protest of Pete Seeger, and the dustbowl, folkie affectations of Woody Guthrie, and really makes each of them his own for the first time. As much as I loved Nebraska, Devils and Dust and Joad, the faux-Appalachian “okie-isms” in his voice on those albums — with every other line seemingly punctuated with “mister” or “sir” — also at times sounded as forced as Mitt Romney doing Public Enemy raps at a karaoke bar.
There’s a few of those “misters” and “sirs” on Wrecking Ball too. But here, Springsteen’s voice sounds more like it is really populating the characters in the songs, rather than just portraying them.
It’s a great album, and one I suspect will only grow on me more with repeated listens. The songs are both deceptively simple, yet marvelously layered, thanks to Ron Aniello’s superb production (one suspects that Springsteen himself knew it was time to change gears there, after 2009′s tepid Working On A Dream).
As most of you already know (and have been reading here in Mark Saleski’s “One Track Mind” articles), the Springsteen camp has been “leaking” a new song from Wrecking Ball every day this week. Here, for the first time, we also present a track-by-track preview of the entire album, based on our initial MP3 impressions …
WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN: Wrecking Ball’s lead-off single is being positioned as a present-day “Born In The USA” style anthem.
But it also shares many of that song’s ambiguously mixed messages. Like “Born In The USA” before it, this one kicks off with big drums, before settling into a guitar intro ripped straight from the Beach Boys’ “Wild Honey.”
But with a chorus coupling “wherever this flag is flown” with “we take care of our own,” one could easily see ambitious politicians co-opting the song as their own this election year (much as they did in 1984 with “BITUSA”), despite a deeper listen revealing how “the calvary stayed home” and how “the road to good intentions has gone dry as a bone.”
Like “Born In The USA” before it, this is a distress call, all dressed up as a patriotic, rah-rah anthem that could have Springsteen running like hell from it before all is said and done (speaking of those good intentions). Still, this is easily Springsteen’s catchiest tune in years.
EASY MONEY: This track is basically a cautionary tale that makes robbery sound like a country hoedown, set to a hand clapping hip-hop beat. For all of its hillbilly fiddles though, the bottom line is that this is about a guy taking his date, and a Smith and Wesson, out on the town for a wild night where “all those fat cats will think its funny, I’m just lookin’ for easy money.”
Desperate times apparently call for drastic measures. I like this track, but in the overall scheme of the album, would also consider it a fairly minor one. Nice gospel preacher bit at the end though.
SHACKLED AND DRAWN: Another Seeger Sessions-style hoedown here, but with a bit of a chain-gang twist, with Christian tent revival overtones. In this tale, the fiddles are still ringing full-tilt down in the prison yard where the “shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone,” while “up on bankers hill, the party’s going strong.”
This track ends with something that sounds like it was channeled from one of those Pentecostal meetings where you see people handling live snakes on the History Channel. In other words, things are starting to get interesting.
JACK OF ALL TRADES: This is one of those great little songs that shows why Bruce Springsteen is such a master storyteller, both as a lyricist and as a singer. It is also the point where this album begins to go from being merely good to great, and the gospel influences (which become much more prevalent on the second half) begin to really creep in.
Our “Jack Of All Trades” here is basically your average Joe who “mends your roof” and “harvests your crops,” while “the banker man grows fat, the working man grows thin, it’s all happened before, and it’ll happen again.” The plot thickens with a great Tom Morello guitar solo and the admission that “”if I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot em’ onsight.”
Things are starting to get really good now.
DEATH TO MY HOMETOWN: Imagine the apocalypse set to an Irish jig, where “they brought death to my hometown.” In the world of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball, the Four Horsemen are not just hooded, biblical figures, but rather vulture capitalists who “destroyed our families factories and they took our homes,” just before they “picked our bones” and “the flesh of everything they found.”
But there will be retribution when they “send the robber barons straight to hell.”
THIS DEPRESSION: Right now, this is my favorite track on Wrecking Ball, mainly because of Bruce’s beautifully deep and resonant vocal (something we haven’t seen from Springsteen in awhile).
It also represents kind of a break from all of the musical and lyrical tension building on this album thus far, and the gateway to the (at least in my mind) far better second half, where some of these characters begin to find some hope and redemption. The rising ebb and flow of this song, with its simple declaration “this is my confession, I need your heart, in this depression” is nothing short of beautiful.
WRECKING BALL: The title track of this album is one of two here that will already be familiar to Springsteen fans, who saw him perform an early version of the song at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, just before it was demolished. Here, the song becomes a metaphor for victories won and lost where “hard times come and go, just to come again.”
This song is also going to kick some major ass on the upcoming tour in its new arrangement with the horn section. Kick ass stuff here.
YOU’VE GOT IT: The question here being, just what is “it” anyway? I’m gonna’ go out on a limb here, and say that “it” (given the overall gospel theme of this album’s latter half) is salvation, redemption, or something like that. Set to a bluesy slide guitar, with the horn section eventually creeping in, this song asks the musical question “What Is It?”
Whatever “it” is, it sure seems to be something worth fighting for.
ROCKY GROUND: The most overtly gospel influenced song on this album begins in the tent (‘natch), and ends with some greezy Issac Hayes “Shaft” wah-wah pedal guitar action in the mix (this is where producer Ron Aniello really earns his paycheck — for touches like this).
Jesus also makes an appearance here right next to Issac, to remind the tea-baggers that “the money changers in this temple will not stand.” Now, that’s my kind of Jesus!
LAND OF HOPE AND DREAMS: The coolest thing about this new arrangement of the long standing encore staple of live E Street Band shows, is the way they blend in Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” toward the end here. Otherwise, the gospel arrangement fits right into this album’s overall story-arc of everyday working stiffs in search of a break from their struggle at the end of their working day.
But faith is definitely rewarded on this train, in the form of a Clarence Clemons sax solo (his last on a Springsteen album), that will bring tears to your eyes.
WE ARE ALIVE: “There’s a cross up here on Calvary Hill.” The dead have risen to claim their just rewards, including the one who “was killed one Sunday morning in Birmingham.”
Welcome to Bruce Springsteen’s songs for the new depression. In stores March 6.