If Bob Dylan is rock’s poet laureate, then like an actual poet laureate, his relevance to everyday Americans, at least since the sixties, has been limited at best. This is not a slight to Dylan or his artistry. After all, he reached a third career zenith not too long ago, much of it his sixties, with a masterful trilogy of albums (Time Out of Mind, “Love and Theft”, and Modern Times). Modern Times even topped the charts; but Dylan, ever the curmudgeon, has lost interest in singing about our modern times for some time now. He was last topical on “Neighborhood Bully,” way back in 1983. And that song was about Israel and also wasn’t very good. Dylan, an uncomfortable preacher on those rare occasions when he chooses to preach, has seldom been a source of populist inspiration.
Perhaps that’s why Bruce Springsteen, sixty-two now, remains so relevant to so many people. Springsteen has been touted as the “New Dylan” from the start, but unlike Dylan his music has increasingly been a salve for every societal wound. Springsteen long ago left behind his carefree, ragamuffin salad days for a higher calling and has become the Dylan fans always wanted Dylan to be: an advocate with a bleeding heart so gigantic it could swallow the entire U-S-of-A, ready to expel our troubles (poverty, injustice, war, disease, you name it) with one massive thump.
Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen’s 17th studio album, is his angriest and most vital work since Nebraska. Bruce being Bruce, this means literal calls-for-blood are joined by towering E-Street melodies; if you weren’t paying attention to his words you might think these songs were the usual Kumbayas Springsteen has been churning out since The Rising. Wrecking Ball takes his previous, quiet “protest” albums (Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and Devils and Dust) and transforms them into another rollicking gusher. Gone is Magic’s somber ambivalence and Working on a Dream’s saccharine hokeyness. Wrecking Ball is Bruce Springsteen’s fierce and triumphant knee to Wall Street’s balls.
That said, the first half of Wrecking Ball is rather on-the-nose and opens with the anonymous first single “We Take Care of Our Own.” A friend of mine, who happens to be a Springsteen scholar, called the song a “car commercial.” Her description not only accurately describes its sound, but also rightly nods at the auto bailouts. Bruce has wisely brightened Wrecking Ball with the hootenanny joyfulness of We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, his most recent masterwork. “Easy Money,” “Shackled and Drawn,” and “Death to My Hometown” vigorously march and stomp despite their dire, common theme: the fat cats are pissing all over us. Giddy fiddles and a full-throated gospel choir turn the three into celebrations. Despite my natural, cynical demeanor, I often found myself smiling and even ready to clap along. Score one for the Boss. Even “This Depression,” a requisite Springsteen dirge, is a downer only because it lingers for two minutes too long.
Some guitar noodling opens Wrecking Ball’s title-track and ushers in the album’s extraordinary second half. Sure, Bruce may be on lyrical auto-pilot. “Wrecking Ball,” both a call-to-arms and a paean to his beloved New Jersey, has references so obvious they should induce cringes. Yet it transcends cliché because Bruce treats his own work with the same loving care, and seriousness, he gave to Pete Seeger’s. Many plucky upstarts, Arcade Fire being the best, have been making their own versions of the rousing working-class anthem Springsteen pioneered. But when Bruce is in top form, no one else comes close. His rah-rah populism can be nonsense, but at least it’s spirited nonsense. Springsteen makes you a believer, even if it’s just for a second. Down with parking lots! And while we’re at it, modern capitalism! Speaking of rousing, if you don’t give it, whatever “it” may be, to Bruce after hearing the blues come-on “You Got It,” then you probably don’t have it (a libido, or a pulse) anyway. The plodding “Rocky Ground” is the album’s lone turkey, worthy of a boxed compilation and little else. Skip it: Wrecking Ball’s two true classics follow.
Since The Rising, Springsteen has attempted to replicate the particular rock ‘n’ roll alchemy that marked his artistic peak, with varying degrees of partial-success and failure. He finally nails it with “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a staple of his live set since 1999. It is the rare and wonderful latter-day E-Street gem that can stand beside marquee numbers such as “The Promised Land,” “Rosalita,” and even “Born to Run.” “This train,” the song’s central conceit, is of course America, but also the E-Street Band. Steel wheels are ready to carry all who choose to ride, the “saints and sinners” and the “whores and gamblers,” away from misery to prosperity, material and spiritual. More than a generic hymn to inclusiveness, “Hope and Dreams” is about that supremely uncool 19th century ideal few care to sing about nowadays. Among its many riches, “Hope and Dreams” also includes a typically magnificent Clarence Clemons sax solo, one of his last, which rents the song’s dense sonic tapestry and delivers the familiar, unadulterated catharsis that Bruce used to casually toss off.
Wrecking Ball concludes with a tribute to Johnny Cash in particular and to existence in general. “We are Alive” whistles the mariachi melody from “Ring of Fire” as if it were “Dixie,” a standard of the American songbook. (Is it not?) The tinkling beauty of “We are Alive” lies in its simplicity. It never lifts into the clouds because life occurs down here on Earth. It is extraordinary and mundane. “We are Alive” is the former in the guise of the latter. As is Wrecking Ball.
Despite some extraneous drum loops and the stilted rap on “Rocky Ground,” nothing on the album is particularly new or experimental. Bruce Springsteen is beyond having to prove his artistic bona fides. Wrecking Ball is exactly what it needs to be: a mostly great Springsteen record, and a reminder of former glories that’s glorious too.
Listen to ‘Wrecking Ball’ in its entirety here.