Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball

The Independent, 2012-03-02, by: Andy Gill
On what is unquestionably his most potent album so far this century, and some way beyond, Bruce Springsteen comes across like Peter Finch's character in Network: he's as mad as hell, and he's not going to take it any more.

It's a relief to hear him this way, particularly after the tentative, misplaced hopes of the feelgood Working on a Dream: almost as if the whole banking crisis debacle had made him ashamed of allowing himself to be lulled into optimism by Obama's election victory. The whole album seethes with a sense of betrayal and reproach that finds its most moving personal expression in "This Depression", an acknowledgement of the emotional, as well as merely economic, repercussions of the recession now endemic across the West – the human tragedies blithely overlooked in the biased "technocratic" news coverage of debt crises in Greece, Italy and elsewhere.

It's so much darker than any of Springsteen's earlier blue-collar tirades: a quarter-century on from the deprivations of Born in the USA, he's old enough to realise that losing your livelihood at 50 or 60 is a very different matter from losing it at 20 or 30, when hardship still possessed a certain gritty romanticism, and the future seemed more malleable. Like that earlier album, Wrecking Ball opens with another deceptive anthem of betrayal, "We Take Care of Our Own", in which the anthemic, Spectorian bombast and the burly assertion of the refrain ("Wherever this flag's flown, we take care of our own") are gradually worn threadbare thin by the piling up of rhetorical questions like "Where's the promise from sea to shining sea? Where's the work that will set my hands and my soul free?". But this time, only an idiot politician would dare co-opt it as their campaign anthem.

"We Take Care of Our Own" poses the central question to which the subsequent tracks all offer partial responses: in "Easy Money", a broken victim decides to follow the fat cats' example and turn to crime. In the careworn "Jack of All Trades", another victim gamely promises to do whatever menial tasks he must to keep his family above the breadline, his stiff upper lip slipping just once, as he admits, "if I had a gun I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight". And in the closing trilogy of "Rocky Ground", "Land of Hope and Dreams" and "We Are Alive", Springsteen's Catholic upbringing infuses the tragedy with a renewed, more desperate sense of religious salvation, the closing images of the dead and dispossessed singing in their graves offering a strange but oddly heartening affirmation of the enduring human spirit.

Musically, it's couched in a mix of the classic Boss rock bombast and the muscular hootenanny folk-rock of his Seeger Sessions album, with touches of noble gospel, poignant jazz trumpet and feisty Irish rebel music colouring the songs according to their mood. There's few, if any, moments of musical innovation, but in terms of political intent, there won't be a harder, more challenging album released all year.