Bruce Springsteen channels the 99 percent on 'Wrecking Ball'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
More than simply exploring emotions or the gentle confines of the rock and roll medium, Bruce Springsteen is typically at his best when he feels some sort of purpose with his music. In his early days, that sense was overflowing; exploring the broken dreams of his hometown, the pitfals of relationships and, later, fame, or the plight of the working American were all documented so expertly that a template of sorts was set on Springsteen. Perhaps it’s just a reflection of his strengths, or perhaps he bought in, but either way, when he feels the juice of the moment, he steps up. Or, he tries to.
Where the aftermath of Vietnam or Sept. 11 once served as inspiration, the current economic doldrums of the United States is the subject that loosely threads the songs of Wrecking Ball, a new album recorded in the wake of Occupy America with a spirit to match.
It was referenced somewhat on 2009’s Working on a Dream, but mere social struggles pale in comparison to the anger and outrage of the working class on display in the past year. With America on the brink of its biggest populist uprising since the late 1800’s monopoly heyday, Springsteen had his backdrop.
And it’s evident immediately. There’s a real retro feel to the leadoff track, “We Take Care of Our Own,” calling back not just to The Rising but his mid-1980s heyday, when he reluctantly found himself the voice of America. Even some of the backing vocals, like the punctuations on “Shackled and Drawn,” sound lifted right out of Born in the USA. For an artist like Springsteen, a knowing reference to the past isn’t a bad thing.
What’s nice is that, while the finish is still a bit too glossy in spots to carry the weight that these songs deserve, that studio sheen is dialed back a bit than Working on a Dream. As was the case on that album, a few songs here could easily be imagined as solo acoustic numbers with a greater deal of power.
But, perhaps in deference to fallen bandmate Clarence Clemons, Springsteen and producer Ron Aniello dialed back the studio professionalism just so, enough to make this feel closer to The Rising than Magic, for example. For the most part, the professionalism that clouded those records is gone in favor of simply letting Springsteen’s voice carry the songs, and his voice is in excellent form.
There are Irish overtones, on songs like “Death to My Hometown,” that add a certain working-class weight to the songs. Hinted at on his Seeger Sessions record, that aesthetic carries over to his more traditional (E Street Band and otherwise) work, giving him another layer.
There are missteps, though. The mashing of gospel and hip hop on “Rocky Ground,” along with its heavy studio touch, serves as a failed experiment. Production issues, as in over production, do come up from time to time; a gentler touch, perhaps just piano, might’ve served “Jack of All Trades” well. The title track, an ode to the former Giants Stadium, certainly worked in the moment when Springsteen closed one of his many homes away from home in concert, but it feels out of place when thrown into the middle of so many songs about the pitfalls of the American Dream.
But they’re sidelights to the main attractions here. “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Death to My Hometown,” “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “American Land” lead a strong set that plays up to Springsteen’s strengths, carries the message and keeps the Boss current.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org