“Wrecking Ball” is Bruce Springsteen's angriest, most political and most substantial album in at least a decade. But he still has hope
They once had a name for what you'll find on Bruce Springsteen's new album, "Wrecking Ball": folk rock, they called it.
True, "Wrecking Ball" is a far cry from the jangly guitars and clear harmonies of the Byrds doing "Mr. Tambourine Man," or the rest of what epitomized folk-rock in its mid-1960s heyday. This is a rock 'n' roll record, a rough-and-tumble album that throws in samples, drum loops and special guests but does it all in the service of muscular, driving music.
But it is also an angry, political record of a kind pioneered in the folk field, and one that finds musical inspiration in old field recordings, in Irish songs, in Johnny Cash.
Springsteen's mindset, in a way, is straight out of Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger: "Wrecking Ball" is a populist album that rages at what has happened in this country over the past decade, with particular venom reserved for the bankers – or "money changers," as the Biblically-minded "Rocky Ground" puts it.
After a decade of albums in which Springsteen worked at healing ("The Rising") or couched his angriest political statements in metaphor ("Livin' in the Future" from "Magic"), the Boss is through messing around: "Wrecking Ball" is blunt, direct and furious.
It also feels like his toughest, most substantial album in a decade or two. And his timeliest: It is no coincidence that "Wrecking Ball" is coming out in an election year.
Every bit as much a state-of-the-union address as Woody Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Ballads" or Sly and the Family Stone's "there's a riot goin' on," the album opens with a line that pretty much sets forth Springsteen's mission: "I've been knocking on the door that holds the throne."
He knocks loud and he knocks hard; "Wrecking Ball" is an album about betrayal, and about fighting that betrayal through community and continuity, though a lineage of struggle that encompasses labor movements, civil rights marches and immigration battles.
It won't win him fans among those who disagree with his politics and think that a comfortable member of the one percent can't sing with authority on behalf of the 99 percent, and it has some musical elements that have been known to bug some Bruce purists: singalong choruses, twangy vocals, yelps and hollers.
But Springsteen has long since staked out this thematic territory; new songs like "Easy Money" and "Shackled and Drawn" are clear successors to the likes of "Atlantic City" and "Mansion on the Hill" from his "Nebraska" album 30 years ago.
And musically, Springsteen has never used a palette this rich and varied. This is a full-band rock album (though most E Street Band members are used sparingly, if at all), but old gospel songs and newer R&B songs provide codas and choruses to "Shackled and Drawn" and "Death to My Hometown." Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" inspires a whistled part in "We Are Alive," and Michelle Moore even delivers a rap in "Rocky Ground."
This is rock 'n' roll that draws connections to generations of older music, contains more than a few touches of his 2006 "Seeger Sessions Band" album, and finds common ground in the music that has always been the soundtrack for struggle.
And struggle is at the core of the album, from the raucous opener "We Take Care of Our Own" – which basically asks why don't we take care of our own anymore – to the intimate ballad "Jack of All Trades," in which a downtrodden character insists that he'll survive before cutting to the bone with a hushed last-verse confession: "If I had me a gun I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight."
"Death to My Hometown," meanwhile, is an Irish-flavored stomp that incorporates a sampled gospel tune into the fabric of the song, "This Depression" a shattered mood piece with piercing guitar from Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, and "Wrecking Ball" a raw and classic statement of defiance with lines that pretty well sum up the album: "Hold tight to your anger and don't fall to your fears."
That song was written in 2009 for shows he performed at Giants Stadium in New Jersey shortly before its demolition, but you don't need to know the history for "hard times come and hard times go … just to come again" to make sense.
"Rocky Ground" is the most singular song musically; some of Springsteen's own vocals are distorted and treated as if they're old samples, while Michelle Moore essentially takes a co-lead vocal and adds a rap. Riding a "Streets of Philadelphia"-style drum loop, the song is mesmerizing but may well also be polarizing.
It's also the place where the album shifts, where Springsteen stops raging and begins to embrace the idea that a change is gonna come.
The next song, the glorious "Land of Hope and Dreams," has been a concert staple since the E Street Band reunion tour of 1999. A deliberate twist on Sister Rosetta Tharpe's harsh "This Train" ("This train don't carry no gamblers/No whiskey drinkers and no high flyers"), it turns the train from a symbol of judgment to one of inclusion: In Springsteen's version, "This train carries saints and sinners/This train carries losers and winners."
As the new recording makes explicit, the song's true predecessor is Curtis Mayfield's mid-'60s classic "People Get Ready," a similarly inclusive and generous song.
"Land of Hope and Dreams" insists that the United States can be the land of promise that the rest of the album has questioned. To put the song on an album 13 years after its live debut, particularly since those 13 years have been years of what Springsteen clearly sees as broken promises, is less an act of celebration than a call to arms.
The song also gives a curtain call to the E Street Band's sax player Clarence Clemons, who died in June but who supplies one last solo on the song, most likely through a live recording.
("Clarence doesn't leave the E Street Band when he dies," wrote Springsteen in the moving liner notes. "He leaves when we die.")
"Land of Hope and Dreams" would make sense to close the album, since it has served that function at countless shows – but instead, "Wrecking Ball" has one more card to play. (The deluxe version has two additional songs, including the live staple "American Land.")
"We Are Alive," the final song, makes explicit the album's ties to the folk tradition, and to centuries of using music to protest. Its title to the contrary, the song is sung by dead people – but these are dead people who insist they're not dead, that they live on because spirit and music and community live on.
The unnamed characters might as well come out of old folk songs and history books – they could be Joe Hill and John Henry and Hattie Carroll and the unnamed narrator of Springsteen's own 2005 song "Matamoros Banks."
Springsteen's last release before "Wrecking Ball" was "The Promise," a collection of unreleased songs from 1976-78 that took its title from a song that dealt with personal rather than political betrayal. "When the promise was broken," sang Springsteen at the time, "I cashed in a few of my dreams."
He still sees a landscape littered with broken promises, but Bruce Springsteen isn't cashing in his dreams in 2012. Instead, "Wrecking Ball" stands up and demands that those dreams are still alive.