Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball

Being Bruce Springsteen can’t be easy. As one of the last quasi-relevant survivors of a stadium-rock infrastructure that doesn’t exist anymore, he’s spent decades being held up as a paragon of real American-ness, whatever that might possibly mean. And new Springsteen albums don’t have the luxury of just being Springsteen albums; they have to become definitive statements about the current age, monuments to whatever beleaguered historical moment we’re currently surviving. To Springsteen’s credit, he’s never shrunk from that particular challenge. And Wrecking Ball, his new one, is Springsteen’s album about the growing economic gulf in the same way that The Rising was his album about 9/11. Unfortunately for Springsteen and for us, that’s not really a subject that lends itself very well to Springsteen’s specific brand of larger-than-life throaty uplift.

Not that he doesn’t give it his best. First single and opening track “We Take Care Of Our Own” is a vintage Springsteen stomper, all triumphant piano and climactic singalong-roars, and it’s almost certainly the best song on the album. With that song, Springsteen’s done his best to craft a social-safety-net anthem, bringing the titanic thump of Born In The U.S.A. to the single issue that seems to be tearing the U.S.A. into diametrically opposed pieces. And it works. But for the rest of the LP, he goes for a more rooted-in-Americana folk-music classicism. As such, the Springsteen album it most recalls isn’t one of the classics; it’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, his 2006 toe-dip into the American songbook.

Even with that rootsy approach, though, Bruce finds the room to experiment with a bunch of different genres and some of those work out better than others. “Death To My Hometown” borrows some of the swagger of recent Springsteen collaborators the Dropkick Murphys, turning a funeral for one of Springsteen’s classics into a giddy Irish tin-whistle stomp, and it just sounds awesome. The title track is Jersey-dustbowl folk-blues, a kinda-silly concoction which nobody else on the planet could sell like he does. Those both work out great. But “Shackled And Drawn” is a shot at salt-of-the-earth Southern rock that just sounds more hackneyed and cliched than it should: “I’ll always love the feel of sweat on my shirt,” that sort of thing. “Rocky Ground” has just a hint of chicken-scratch funk guitar and a young woman delivering a quick Springsteen-penned rap verse, which is something that just never should’ve happened.

None of it is bad, exactly, and the intentions stay admirable throughout. Parts of it are rousing as fuck. And it’s great to hear one of the last transcendent figures of rock music keeping his hands dirty and making big, sweaty rock music; it’s been about a decade since U2, Springsteen’s closest peers, pulled off an album this satisfying. But the whole thing feels crushed under the weight of ambition and expectation, and the songs themselves can’t always survive it. Working On A Dream, Springsteen’s last studio album, had its own goofy moments. But it came during a rare optimistic moment in American history, right around the time of Obama’s inauguration, and so it didn’t have to be about anything; it got a chance to just be an album full of big Bruce songs. I thought that approached better.

It’s not that Springsteen shouldn’t talk about struggle; putting the feeling of struggle to music is why he was put on this earth. But on my favorite of his albums, Nebraska, he tackled many of the same issues at work on Wrecking Ball. He did them without bigger-than-life fanfare, just by simply and straightforwardly describing the issues his songs’ characters were going through. Sometimes, the best way to tackle big issues is to go small, even when you’re one of the biggest stars in music. As for Wrecking Ball, it’s a pretty good album, but I can’t help wishing it was better.

Wrecking Ball is out 3/6 on Columbia.

Comments (16)
  1. Just tell me that there isn’t another “Queen of the Supermarket” on here, and I’ll be alright.

    • “Queen of the Supermarket” is fantastic. Looked at one way, it’s a funny cousin of the magnificent “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” as an older man reflects wistfully upon his long-gone youth. Looked at another way, it’s a fine addition to the surprisingly large number of stalkerish songs in the Springsteen oeuvre.

  2. The single ain’t bad……
    Classic Springsteen…….
    Reminds me a country song I used to know….

    I was hoping for some grand moments near the end of the song…..
    Some sort of crescendo…..
    Something in a higher octave, maybe?….

    I wonder if the extras at the end of the video were paid for their time…….

  3. Three of the songs including the title track have all been previously released in live versions and are very good. So there are at least four good songs on the album already.

  4. It is interesting to read a review of Bruce that is not totally fawning. Not that I would be able to write something which wasn’t; Bruce, to me, represents everything that I think is great. He is the reason I started playing music…blah blah…but I digress – Wrecking Ball, the only song I have thus far heard, works because it has nultiple interpretations. It makes you think….who are “We” and who are “our own”, and does he mean it sarcastically. Little hints like “shotgun shack to the Superdome”, a likely reference to New Orleans and the Katrina disaster, clue you in to what Bruce is probably thinking…CAN’T WAIT for the album!!

  5. Guess he never got the memo that there already was a really good album by Emmylou Harris called “Wrecking Ball”.

  6. “But on my favorite of his albums, Nebraska, he tackled many of the same issues at work on Wrecking Ball.”

    unfair comparison

  7. OH BOY…HERE WE Go Again…

    As if reading current rock “journalism” isn’t painful enough, upon the dawn of every new Springsteen release nowadays, “reviews” get spit out before even the album comes out, let alone before repeated listenings.

    And these reviews it seems all come with the same old, tired drivel. The headlines almost all contain quick, soundbite type cliches. And the analysis of the music ( again, barely heard ) is so trite that one almost is prone to have a knee jerk opposite reaction. You don’t like the rap Bruce includes in Rocky Ground–it seems almost everyone online else does! I myself haven’t heard the album yet, but I do a kick out of these premature “reviews” now that try to compete with the Springsteen news of new music.

    I do like your first paragraph (in part because you do not speak of–or evaluate, or judge or whatever else it is you are trying to do– the music) until the last sentence, which is nonsense. If anything, Bruce had built up more cred to write about economic social despair than 9/11. In any case, both topics are just crying out for his imagination and artistry, and we get them. Then the “critics” come in to analyze American rock and folk music like it is some kind of science. The “critics” beat us to the music. Besides placing personal associations into their readers minds, what are they accomplishing exactly with these soundbite dissertations? I’m honestly not sure these days..

    • You put commas, in funny places.

    • Why did you capitalize only the first letters of “Go Again?” The first four words looked so good with everything capitalized. Really though, to properly convey your anger you should have just made every word all caps.

      I’m still trying to figure out what “the Springsteen news of new music” is supposed to mean. Someone help.

      Goddamn someone needs to make a tumblr dedicated to angry anonymous commentators lashing out against journalistic music criticism.

  8. I have to say this is a pretty fair review. Being a fan, I know Bruce can do better, but the new material definitely works better than “Working On A Dream” overall. Not really even close to “The Rising” or “Magic” though. The Seeger Sessions sound is there on several tracks, which I personally do not care for. Also recycling “Wrecking Ball” & “Land Of Hope & Dreams” is kind of unnecessary. It’s an okay album with some true low points and a couple of good songs. The best track being “We Take Care Of Our Own” by far.

  9. “We Take Care Of Our Own” Sounds a lot like “Life of Riley” by The Lightning Seeds.. presumably not the sound Bruce was going for.

  10. “Death To My Hometown” is a standout track.

  11. This album is fantastic:) I especially love the vid for “We Take Care of Our Own.”
    http://vevo.ly/AhSidY

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