We are alive: Thoughts on Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen

It has to be hard being a Bruce Springsteen record these days. It’s like the pop inanimate object equivalent of being Bob Dylan, whom Springsteen has credited with kicking open the door to his mind. Dylan has had to spend the vast majority of his working life in the long angled shadow of being the “voice of a generation.” As a strange kind of kindred spirit, Springsteen releases made since Tunnel of Love; whether you’re a CD, download or whatever, have been hurled into a comparative world of the most critically appraised prolonged run of album drops in pop music history.

Here’s that incomparable streak from 1973 to 1988; The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska, Born in the U.S.A., and Tunnel of Love. That’s 7 release in 15-some-odd years with The Boss notoriously and painstakingly working through the smallest of intricacies on most. While you could argue the live-long-day over other artists’ 7-release-runs, there just is no comparison for mass appeal and critical acclaim for a near decade-and-a-half than what Springsteen achieved on this stretch.

I’m 37 and my first eagerly anticipated Springsteen releases were the double shot Human Touch and Lucky Town, and my fandom has existed in parallel to each and every new Springsteen release having to answer the call of its older brethren. You find millions of opinions with just as many message boards questioning each release since Tunnel of Love. Were there naysayers before TOL? Of course, but this wasn’t the essence of the Springsteen fan community. Now it seems that, just like the polarized political world we live in, a prerequisite for being a Bruce fan now requires a “which side are you on?” position for each release.

I’ve had my own opinions as each new album dropped since then and each time, while I may have disagreed, I could see where each side was coming from – either yea or nay. But now we have Wrecking Ball, and of any original release that the best guitar picker from Asbury Park, New Jersey has let out in to the world this is the one that has the power, strength and consistency to most deservedly sit at the bar and toss ’em back with those other records of Bossman yore. Yes. I’m telling you to feel all right if you’re in a hurry and slip this new album in to your collection out of chronological order, say in between Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. While you’re out you shouldn’t feel disrespectful or bad about it. Heck, BITUSA will actually see much of itself in its new family member.

What’s fantastic about all this for me is that the message of the album is so distinct and purposeful, a reality that would seem doomed from the outset to fail from heavy-handedness, but it doesn’t. In fact it accomplishes quite the opposite. In many ways this is the closest Bruce Springsteen has ever come to releasing a concept record. The sensational and essential Born to Run and Darkness anniversary releases let us in on just how much Bruce was looking for a beginning-to-end message from those sets of songs. But from the mouth of the man himself, Wrecking Ball is the most purposeful album he’s ever done.

It starts with a big question in the vein of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” with “We Take Care of Our Own.” There is no character device here for Bruce to ease the thoughts out on to the listener. It’s him directly asking whoever is listening a vital question about America, “Is it our nation’s responsibility to look out for the least of us and if so are we answering that call?” Bruce has long held to the notion that we only win as a country if we all win. It’s a pretty wide scope as a table setter and one that I feared might represent Bruce being too self aware of what his self-perceived role was as a musical populist spokesman. This fear was quickly vanished when I heard the rest of the record which sets about exploring this grand idea.

Now we have our men and women, the living and the dead, the risen and even torn-down old football stadiums whom live and breathe within the confines of Wrecking Ball. The second song, “Easy Money” has us tagging along with that guy from “Atlantic City” and “Meeting Across the River,” but it’s no longer a matter of  life and death or all-in spiritual angst. It’s more along the line of the pavement sign holding bravado of our man from “Working on the Highway.” He’s gonna hit the town with a Smith and Wesson .38 well aware that those for whom he deems most responsible for his dealt stacked deck will just laugh at his desperation, but, like Gillian Welch sings, he’s gonna do it anyways.

“I got a Smith & Wesson .38. I got a hellfire burning and I got me a taste. Got me a date on the far shore. It’s bright and sunny. I’m going on the town now looking for easy money.”

The sound is all whoop and holler, with a rousing and pounding musical wall hitting after each verse. Springsteen sounds appropriately seasoned vocally and the mix is great as his voice is more commanding and up front and center than it has been in a long time recordings wise. “Easy Money” is a great track and one that provides the first hint that with Wrecking Ball we’ve got something really special.

After “Easy Money” nothing falls energy-wise as “Shackled and Drawn” backs up the play with a great keyboard riff and some of the dirt simplistic imagery that hearkens to Bruce’s potent version of “John Henry” from The Seeger Sessions. A choir of voices assist during the repetitious chorus. I particularly love the timbre of this verse, perhaps my favorite on the record:

“I always love the feel of sweat on my shirt. Stand back, son, and let a man work. Let a man work is that so wrong? I woke up this morning shackled and drawn.”

The song closes out with some of the sampling we heard tell about before the roll out of the album one track and website at a time. It’s a gospel grab of Lyn “The Female Preacher” Collins from 1973’s “Me and My Baby Got Our Own Thing Going.” It reminds me of Bruce’s rallying live concert cry, “Is there anybody alive out there!?!”

“Jack of all Trades” is the first ballad on the record and it paces along in 3/4 time. As Willie Nelson once wrote, sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year, but with this piece were once again provided some very simple language and a languishing narration from a man who’s willing to do the work that God provides with each statement concluding with the not so self-assured refrain, “We’ll be all right.” A flash of fire entombs the closing as Springsteen sings:

“If I had me a gun I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight.”

Even that verse concludes with the trembled notion that we’ll be all right. It’s one heck of a juxtaposition that is musically emphasized by a searing and emotive guitar solo from The Nightwatchman, Tom Morello. This is one of those songs I imagine only Springsteen can get across, or better said, get across this well.

Now, lemme catch my breath here! Now we get to what stands as my personal favorite track on Wrecking Ball, the song that made me straighten right up on the edge of my seat and had me realizing that this is the most I have ever enjoyed listening to a new Springsteen release, “Death to My Hometown.” I’m grateful for the Boss’ performance of this one on Fallon during Springsteen Week because I believe it speaks for itself, loudly.

That right there is an Irish stomp, rock song that calls back to the tune of the folk standard written by a homeless man, “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Horns and shouts and vultures picking the bones of everything they found. Remembering that I came in at Human Touch and Lucky Town I don’t recall a new Springsteen track jumping this much off the needle. There’s a lot of elements that were stuffed in to this field cannon and lit. There isn’t a thing I don’t love about this song.

To bookend this boot stomping thundercrack of a track we have “This Depression,” which if I had to acknowledge a valley on this release for me it would be this one. I like it fine enough but on such a purposeful record, translated – one addressing our nation’s long recession and our responsibility to each other, to have this song actually be titled “This Depression” is just a tad difficult to get around. That said it’s still a good song, one I would never consider to be a throw away.

When I first caught wind of the album’s title I had two thoughts. The first was that it couldn’t be that song he wrote for the final days of The Meadowlands to play live, and isn’t that the same title of an Emmylou Harris album? The answers were of course yes and yes. Some how some way though Springsteen managed to take what seemed like a light-hearted, and dare I say fun, kiss off and transform it into a bellwether that is the heart of the album that bares its name.

The transformation from angst and desperation to a heels-dug-in populist gospel actually occurs during this song. It’s a pretty cool thing that within the same track you’re provided the first act of (the album) Wrecking Ball and the second. I was absolutely floored with how this song and the way it was recorded managed to accomplish this. By the time Springsteen seems defeated with, “yeah hard times come, hard times go, hard times come, hard times go just to come again…” He calls upon the memory of the man who is on that hill with all he’s got from Darkness on the Edge of Town. He’s older and more weathered world worn now but in spite of a defeatism that acknowledges the seeming inevitability of the coming of hard times he stands firm with but one declaration…

“Bring on your wrecking ball.”

Ooooof. Now I get why he included this song and I also appreciate why he decided to call this record Wrecking Ball. It’s a slim-bone metaphor of what the souls that are investigated on these tracks call upon to put up or shut up but it’s also exactly what this record is. It’s a wrecking ball folks, a monster statement from a man many were worried had lost his human touch and had seen his better days.

So what good is all this demon demolition and fat cat condemning survival without that good old love? With “You Got It” we have a Lyle Lovett inspired country blues that’s all about one of the few rewards for finding a reason to believe we can almost all agree upon. Sexual healing isn’t a stranger in the canon of rock-n-roll and there isn’t any room for interpretation as to what this narrator is after. It’s a cool delivery and a sweet stroke that fits right in exactly where it’s found on the album; after the fall and fire and before the common spirit hops aboard a train bound for hope and redemption.

“Rocky Ground” is the one that had all us tramps trembling in our wannabe Bruce-boots. Word was out that the song featured a {gasp} rap. It does but it’s okay, you can exhale. It is experimental but it works for the song that, as a whole, is a gospel tune. It’s founded on an interesting new sound with lyrics that call upon that inescapable, as Bruce explains, Catholic imagery of his upbringing. Bruce actually revealed during an appearance to promote the record that he had been working on a gospel record but sidelined the project. The sheep are lost and there’s money changing hands in the temple. There’s a need to be led to higher ground, a prayer that becomes a moving set up for the other previously played and recognized song from the record.

Springsteen has played “Land of Hope and Dreams” plenty of times with the band and at quite a few shows for many fans it was the emotional high point of the evening (I can attest to this personally). The studio version is different and it took a little adjustment to hear the drum loop intro but upon completion this song loses none of the potency that made it such a stand out live. The sound melds with the rest of the record and the train still carries those whores, sinners, losers and winners. Perhaps most surprising is that this particular song isn’t the closer. The fact that this recording features a solo from the late Clarence Clemons is enough to make it a vital listen but it is much, much more than just a sweet remembrance.

What does close Wrecking Ball is not only one of the more sonically experimental and in a sense strange songs in this collection, but one of the better finishers in the Springsteen discography. It opens with a slow rising whistle that calls upon the late Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” A fast strummed acoustic and a whispering Springsteen alludes to Calvary Hill and a gravestone kid. It’s like he discovered where the train from “The Land of Hope and Dreams” last stop was, and it’s actually the last stop that awaits us all, death. But what do the fallen, the narrator of the song who dreams of being six feet low and buried alive, the lost Americans throughout our history who were active in the struggle for what was called upon in “We Take of Our Own” let us know? They whisper in our ears… We are alive.

Horns take us away to that “Ring of Fire” coda and the ghosts that haunt Wrecking Ball, the kindred spirits of Joe Roberts, E Street’s own fallen blood brothers Clarence and Danny, Tom Joad and the man himself, the Boss, though he’d just as soon you didn’t call him that, reminds us that they’re still very much alive and with us to fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.

What else can I say? Bring on your Wrecking Ball!