The morning sun is breaking: Wrecking Ball review

Greasy Lake, 2012-03-05, by: Karsten S. Andersen
After the longest break between new studio albums since The Rising (not counting The Promise), Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball is finally hitting the shelves worldwide. The longer the wait between albums, the higher the expectations, and Wrecking Ball is indeed one of Bruce’s most anticipated albums in the last ten years. And it’s not just because of the amount of time that has passed since the - to many - somewhat disappointing Working on a Dream. It’s what has happened during those three years: the death of Clarence Clemons, the sense of crisis and doom that has grabbed much of the world, the focus on inequality, the 1% versus the 99%, all of which we’ve been clamoring for Bruce to speak about. We need Bruce right now, just like we needed him after 9/11. We need him to put words to our fears about the state of the world and to rally us for what awaits us. And on a fan level, we need him to show us how there can be a Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band without Clarence.

If you can subscribe to the above, Wrecking Ball is exactly what we’ve been hoping for. As Bruce himself has said, and as all PR statements have emphasized, it’s about the economy, stupid, and Bruce is angry. As for Clarence, there may not be a song dedicated to him as we may have hoped, but he’s there, in the liner notes, in the artwork, and indeed in the music.

The album kicks off with the first single and the most classic Bruce sounding song of the bunch: “We Take Care of Our Own”. Although the violin seems to be the new keyboard/piano, no Bruce follower is going to need smelling salts after hearing it. The really interesting thing about it is that it’s another one of those ambiguous songs that Bruce likes to challenge us with. At first glance, it can seem almost jingoistic, but as with “Born in the USA” you need to actually listen to more than just the chorus. This is not a self-celebration of how great “we” (Americans? Springsteen fans? Western society?) are at taking care of our fellow man. The more you listen to the song, the more it turns into one of those optical illusions where some random blobs turn into Jesus or a chalice turns into a face. Suddenly the words “we take care of our own”, instead of being a great thing, mean failing to take care of everyone else. Like the bankers on Wall Street took care of themselves and thereby sent everyone else to hell.

Altogether, while the dark forces in Bruce’s music have traditionally been referred to as “they” or “mister” or “sir”, or something otherwise indistinguishable, this time Bruce calls it like he, or his characters, see it. It’s the “bankers”. “Up on banker’s hill the party’s going strong, down here below we’re shackled and drawn”, as Bruce sings in the bouncy work song “Shackled and Drawn”. Or “The banker man grows fat, working man grows thin”, as the protagonist in “Jack of All Trades” concludes, before contemplating expanding his work repertoire to include eliminating the same bankers by gun.

On the powerful “Death to My Hometown” (which, by the way, is not Bruce denouncing a certain old song on Born in the USA, as some of us thought when first reading the title) the enemy is referred to as “robber barons” and “greedy thieves”, but five songs into the album we have a pretty good idea it’s those “fat cats” on Wall Street he’s referring to.

The first half of the album is about as angry and bleak as Bruce gets lyrically. We hit rock bottom with “This Depression”, but the thing with rock bottom is that sometimes it can send you bouncing back. And the turning point of the whole album appears almost unnoticeably in the last line of the last verse of this, one of the gloomiest songs Bruce has ever recorded: “Now the morning sun, the morning sun is breaking”. From then on Bruce leads us out of the darkness, out of the rocky ground, and into a place of defiance, encouragement, and - dare I say it - hope.

The title song, of course, represents the defiance. The song that was written as an ode to Giants Stadium in 2009 when it was about to be torn down, in its new context becomes so much more than a quickly written ditty about a football stadium. Here it represents the old unbreakable values that even the wrecking ball can’t destroy - or at least only temporarily - and it asks the jacks of all trades of the world to hold tight to their anger, because hard times may come, but they also tend to go away.

While “Wrecking Ball” is a classic Bruce song, the style of which can be traced all the way back to “Thundercrack” and “E Street Shuffle”, the next song, “Rocky Ground”, is more of a departure for Bruce. This is where the smelling salts may have come in handy for one or two diehards when they first heard it. Electronic loops? A rap? A female singer who almost steals the song from Bruce? But after a few listens you realize Bruce is doing what he’s always done, which is utilizing the American musical tradition and making it his own. After all, rap and loops have long ago become just as big a part of American music as electric guitars, pounding drums, gospel choirs, trumpets and flutes, all of which are present on this album.

Altogether, the album is woven from a melting pot of styles, references, characters, you name it, that harks back from ancient days to the present. From Irish folk to rock and hip hop. From marauders to Wall Street bankers. From the black slaves and the early railroad workers to the Katrina victims hunkering down in the Superdome. From immigrants of the 1800’s to modern days’ illegal immigrants. From despair to revelation.

The latter is well represented in a song we were all wondering about a few weeks ago when the track list was announced. Why would Bruce include a song that had already been released - albeit in a live version - and had already seen its heydays as a concert favorite 10 years ago? Was he running out of songs? But listening to the album, you realize “Land of Hope and Dreams” was simply waiting for the right moment to appear on a studio album, and this was it. Never mind that this is one of Bruce’s best vocal performances ever, but maybe Clarence’s death played a role in the decision too. When you hear those blasts of his saxophone, which will probably be the last time we will ever hear him on a release with new material, you almost feel he died for a higher purpose. A purpose where he could sit in the skies and play those mournful notes of “Land of Hope and Dreams” and remind us that even in death we all continue to have an impact, and the actions we perform while alive still matter after we’re dead.

The point is rammed home with the last song on the album, “We Are Alive” where the souls of all those departed men and women throughout history reveal that they are still here among us, “in some fashion”. And even if some of them died tragically and seemingly for nothing, everything we do while we live helps nudge the world in one direction or another, and it’s the sum of all those things that matter. So even if things are tough now, what we do now affects the future. That can be a comfort, a threat, or a call to arms, but it’s always worth keeping in mind.

Like most other Bruce albums, Wrecking Ball is bound to divide fans. Some just don’t like the violins. Some don’t like the religious references. Some miss the classic E Street sound. That’s all good and well. But whatever version of Bruce you prefer, this album is as ambitious as any he’s made. As is usually the case, the sum may be greater than its parts, but some of those parts are more than worthwhile additions to the Springsteen canon and will be powerful ingredients in the upcoming shows. As always, the concert stage is where Bruce's songs really come to life, and soon fans everywhere will be jumping up and down to "Shackled and Drawn" and pumping their fists to "Death to My Hometown".

Watch out "Badlands"!