Maybe it’s my Jerseyboy aesthetic…or the fact that we were born within months of each other…or my penchant for really loving artists who have been at it for more than just a few months…but damn if Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball doesn’t just totally obliterate anything else out there by miles. I’ve lived with it now for 23 days, read all the reviews, seen the amazing YouTube clips of Bruce climbing into the balcony at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, watched him on tv (the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon show was incredible) and mused over the fact that he has no time anymore for the Aquarian but that’s okay. Sort of.
All 11 songs on this album are anthems, as anthemic as “We Are The Champions” or “We Will Rock You.” It’s as if he’s harnessed the righteous indignation that Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger put the patent on back in the day but has used it in a rock ‘n’ roll context. “Shackled Up And Drawn” could’ve been on The Seeger Sessions (2006), its ending preacher sample akin to what Paul Simon did on “Getting Ready For Christmas Day.” The fiddle that ends “Easy Money,” the hip-hop break in “Rocky Ground,” the gospel in “Land Of Hope And Dreams” (which includes a Clarence Clemons sax solo), it all works and works well. It’s one reason critics are hailing this as his best album in years. I’ll go one step further. I think it’s his best album ever.
Case in point—the ballad “Jack Of All Trades.” As gut-wrenching as an old Otis Redding plea, it morphs into a New Orleans processional what with that grandiose horn section proving you can’t replace Clarence with but one man. Here’s where the anger seethes and bubbles to the surface. He’s been writing like this since Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978) mainly because he’s lived through it. He’s seen his own father crumble over not being able to gain employment. It’s the same old story. Nothing’s changed. It’s not like he’s jumping on any political bandwagon here although some of the pundits have accused him of jingoism. “If I had me a gun I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight,” he threatens with an eye towards the uncaring bankers who’ll rob you with a fountain pen just like Woody said in 1939. But what’s key here—and written between the lines—is he has no damn gun. And neither do I. And neither should you. It’s only the rage boiling underneath fueling the sentiment.
“Death To My Hometown” is even darker, despite it being arranged almost like an Irish barroom drinking song. Even if you don’t want to hear its words, you can let its lyrics fly right over your head, hoist a few and get sloppy to the maddening positivism of its musical production that masks the naked soul erosion of its lyrics. The bloodlust continues on “This Depression” as Bruce blindly reaches out needing his lover’s heart because he’s “always been strong/I’ve never felt so weak.”
The title tune reverses the continuum and sets the scene for the second half of the album. The bellyaching is over, he’s ready to rumble. Lash out. Use his fists. He’s had it. He’s itching for a fight “if you’ve got the balls.” He wants you to “take your best shot/let’s see what you’ve got.” The horns blare. The band rocks. It’s galvanizing uplifting uniquely American state-of-the-art 2012 rock ‘n’ roll. Bruce’s “Wrecking Ball” is gonna lay you out, Jack! Get the fuck out of the way.
By the time of “You’ve Got It,” I could picture the smile on old Pete Seeger’s face as he listens to his friend’s album for the first time. Bruce is singing better at 62 than he did at 32. The way the band falls in like a big wave, Mighty Max driving it home—it’s a soul-shake of profound proportions.
The ghosts that populate the closing track, “We Are Alive,” are a fitting finale. Much like “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” the Joan Baez song about the wrongful execution in 1915 of labor icon Joe Hill, Bruce’s ghosts are also still alive, permeating his worldview, hovering over his and our subconscious minds, and bookending Wrecking Ball with the easy-to-misunderstand opener “We Take Care Of Our Own.”
Bravo, Bruce. Now am I going to have to buttonhole you again at a press party and demand another interview like I did the first time? It’s only been 34 years.