We didn’t know it then, but this was the end of Bruce Springsteen’s late-career renaissance. After spending the ’90s in the wilderness — living in LA, estranged from the E Street Band — Springsteen had found his voice again in the beginning of the new century. He was making big, ambitious rock albums again, and between his iconic stature and revitalized writing, he became a sort of bard for America in tumultuous times — akin to the chronicler he was at his ’70s and ’80s peak, but now with the gravitas of someone who was dialed in at the same time they were becoming an elder statesman.
Each new Springsteen album from this era was tapped into current events: The Rising became the 9/11 album. Devils & Dust was framed as an Iraq album despite many of its songs originating as ’90s compositions about the American West. Then came the true Iraq/Afghanistan album with Magic. Early Obama-era optimism glimmered all over Working On A Dream. Even an aside like The Seeger Sessions‘ deep dive into old American folk music felt narratively aligned with Springsteen’s overall project during this time. Along the way, he arrived at that point where he was a hallowed figure, both in the classic rock institution but also amongst young indie artists. Bruce was cool again. Bruce was relevant again. You could almost never say a bad thing about the man.
Almost exactly a decade after he’d kick-started this prolific new era with The Rising, Wrecking Ball arrived and sat at the end of this particular chapter. There’s an oft-repeated origin story for The Rising where, a few days after 9/11, a stranger told Springsteen, “We need you now.” That might’ve been the genesis for that album, but it also set up this whole 21st century arc for Springsteen that very much continued, and in many ways concluded, with Wrecking Ball. Released 10 years ago yesterday, Wrecking Ball was a much more conflicted Obama-era missive than Working On A Dream. It reckoned with the financial crisis and everything that had happened in the ensuing years. Spiritually, it is one of the most quintessentially Springsteen albums he’s released this century.
He knew that. In his memoir Born To Run, Springsteen laid out what the album was grappling with: “Wrecking Ball was a shot of anger at the injustice that continues on and has widened with deregulation, dysfunctional regulatory agencies, and capitalism gone wild at the expense of hardworking Americans. The middle class? Stomped on. Income disparity climbed as we lived through a new Gilded Age. This what I wanted to write about.” And similar to the moment that crystallized The Rising 10 years earlier, this went beyond making another album. It was a calling. “I’d been following and writing about America’s post-industrial trauma, the killing of our manufacturing presence and working class, for 35 years. So I went to work,” he continued in the book. “I knew this was the music I should make now. It was my job.”
The album opened up for him when, one day on a drive, he got the beginnings of “Easy Money.” Material coalesced from there, much of it explicitly discussing the dire financial conditions of the recession and, in comparison to Springsteen’s past in cataloguing working class struggles, took more direct aim at the powers that be — the ones not only neglecting but also directly hurting common Americans. “We Take Care Of Our Own” was the galvanizing opener. Although Wrecking Ball was a solo album, this was a classic E Street-style rock song updated for the 21st century, wading back into the waters of conflicted American identity once traveled by “Born In The U.S.A.” The chorus could be mistaken as a proud, patriotic rallying cry, before you listen to the verses and hear all the examples of how we don’t take care of our own. It was an overture, setting the stage for an album that wrestled with how the system and our leaders had failed.
“Easy Money,” “Shackled And Drawn,” and “Death To My Hometown” all felt like angrier extensions of the folk detours glimpsed on Seeger Sessions, the latter in particular adopting a furious Irish-folk-tinged punk to seethe about the bankers on Wall St. The album’s title track originated as a tribute to Giants Stadium before its demolition, but was recontextualized on the album as a song of defiance amidst the defeat running through the other songs. “This Depression” was a sort of double entendre, “Rocky Ground” less so — both touched on the precarious era we were living through. The album eventually found its way to “Land Of Hope And Dreams,” finally appearing on a Springsteen album after its late ’90s debut on the E Street reunion tour, and “We Are Alive” — two songs that tried to look back at a whole history of American identity and struggle. That was macro and mythological as “Land Of Hope And Dreams” tried to find remnants of a promise, and then it was a lineage of protests and injustices strewn across the centuries in “We Are Alive” as a sort of final prayer, communing with the ghosts of Americans who had fought in the past.
Like on “We Are Alive,” the folk strains of “Easy Money,” “Shackled And Drawn,” and “Death To My Hometown” were making through-lines explicit. Springsteen was reaching back to American iconography that preceded him, carrying it through his decades as an American artist, and colliding it in the context of 2012. The album worked best in these moments, at its rawest and most pissed-off — and while the production was still slick compared to, say, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, there was plenty here that sounded fittingly lived-in compared to the suffocating modern rock production that often plagued Springsteen’s latter-day albums. Elsewhere, “Jack Of All Trades” teetered on Bruce caricature, while some experiments landed and some didn’t, perhaps even in the same song: Springsteen returning to the loop-and-gospel tinges for “Rocky Ground” made thematic sense, but the song’s guest rap verse by Michelle Moore still feels awkwardly stitched into his music.
Obviously this was ambitious, sprawling stuff. Springsteen, as he said and as everyone knows, had long since told stories of dead-end small towns and rote workdays. But Wrecking Ball was more about overarching sagas and decades of degradation coming to a head. It was big-picture. In a sense, Wrecking Ball was the end destination of the stories Springsteen had been telling for decades, with the recession itself as a sort of end destination for the economic disparities and runaway capitalism that had hung over the scenes in so many of his classic songs. As it turns out, Wrecking Ball was indeed an ending. It was an ending to those 10 years where he interacted directly with politics and national goings-on, and it was perhaps even an ending to these kinds of giant-swing rock albums he’d made his name on.
In his memoir, Springsteen devotes barely a couple of pages to Wrecking Ball. This is not in itself surprising; if a revered, aging artist is writing a memoir, a lot more real estate needs to be given to the legendary old albums than the one that came out in 2012. But there’s plainspoken disappointment in how Springsteen discusses that era. At one point, he says he knew it was one of his “best, most contemporary, and accessible albums since Born In The U.S.A.,” and if you’re a Springsteen devotee, it’s easy to agree with that sentiment. It’s easy to find Wrecking Ball an imperfect but mostly underrated installment in his late career. There’s one basic fact that, this time around, he was a 60-something classic rocker in a radically altered pop landscape — something he also acknowledges in the book, when he admits Wrecking Ball made him realize rock music was no longer the vessel for these ideas in the modern American music scene.
Wrecking Ball was still a successful album by most metrics for rock albums in the last 10 years, but it was clearly Springsteen trying to operate on the epic scale of his past, and he didn’t find what he was looking for. There’s a dispiriting moment in the book where you can imagine the album left him questioning his role as an artist: “Wrecking Ball was received with a lot less fanfare than I thought it would be. I was sure I had it. I still think I do and did. Maybe my voice had been too compromised by my own success, but I don’t think so.” Reading that, you get the sense that the reaction to Wrecking Ball defined the course of the next decade of Springsteen’s career.
Springsteen followed Wrecking Ball up somewhat quickly, with High Hopes in early 2014. That album was a collection of re-recordings, covers, and long-lost songs, spurred on by Tom Morello’s temporary stint with the E Street Band; it has its moments, but it’s one of Springsteen’s most forgettable albums and functions primarily as a post-script to Wrecking Ball. It would be five and a half years before he released another album. In the interim, the E Street Band embarked on a massive tour celebrating The River that eventually ceded to such a broad celebration of their history in general that it felt like it could quietly be their final tour. Springsteen released his memoir, and then spent years with his Springsteen On Broadway stints, performing solo and digging through stories from his early life. When he finally returned in 2019, it was with Western Stars, a continuation of The Ghost Of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust in that it was a collection rooted in Springsteen’s California ’90s. Then, in 2020, he reunited with the E Street Band for Letter To You, an album shot through with mortality and memories of lost comrades.
A lot of that activity happened to coincide with the next great upset of the 21st century, when Trump became president. Soon enough into that era, the idea of a “Trump album” was exhausting; having to discuss him at all was exhausting. But consider the “we need you” of 9/11 leading Springsteen to The Rising, and the distance between that album and Springsteen’s anodyne work during the Trump presidency. This was a remarkably complex time for the people and themes Springsteen has written about in this country, a fascist-friendly president ascending based on manipulating populist ideals; at least part of these events could be tied directly back to the circumstances Springsteen was writing about on Wrecking Ball several years earlier.
As Springsteen became more outspoken politically in recent decades, it has of course divided his fans — as if his investment in America throughout his career was somehow betrayed by him directly discussing the left-leaning beliefs that would’ve always influenced his particular tales of the States. Like the recession on Wrecking Ball, Trump was another eventual endgame of issues Springsteen had long fixated on, a man who was able to rise to power after the American right’s decades-long con of this country’s working class, a man who was able to harness deep ills like xenophobia but also the constant, ongoing economic suffering of so many people around America.
It’s not like Springsteen was silent during these years. He gave interviews. We all knew where he stood. But imagine how those Trump-era conflicts might play out in the context of a Springsteen album. He had already come face-to-face with a series of 21st century traumas. Now we were in an era where threads of his entire career were in question, were being warped. Did he no longer feel any connection to the working class that were so in thrall of Trump? Had he given in to an idea that, after years as a stratospherically successful musician, he should not try to dissect what was going on, his relationship to these people today? It’s hard not to think of what he discussed in the memoir, the doubt sewn by Wrecking Ball. He had given his all to a big statement rock album, and it had not connected the way he expected. Maybe everything about those Trump years were too murky to begin with for a rock album. Maybe he felt it would too easily descend into self-parody. But it was also strange to see Springsteen, after that run of albums 2002-2012, receding during one of the most chaotic stretches of American history.
Since the Wrecking Ball era, Springsteen has mostly been in legacy solidification mode. He was emptying out the vaults with an expanded River. As the clock ticked, he got the E Street Band back together while everyone still could, and cut the mostly affirming if rather reflective Letter To You. Throughout, there have been some discomfiting notes of finality: His “that was my magic trick” line in Springsteen On Broadway filtering into the song “Letter To You” as if this was becoming past tense, as if his time as this singular figure — the larger-than-life rockstar that felt like a wise family friend — had come to a close.
That lends a sad note to Wrecking Ball all these years later. Western Stars and Letter To You were strong albums, and in any other case an artist of Springsteen’s age, with his history, would naturally settle into quieter years — in fact, without that decade of post-9/11 releases to compare it to, an album mulling over life the way Letter To You does might register as powerful late-career statement a la Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker. But given the context of what Springsteen had become during the ’00s, you can’t help but feel as if something broke after Wrecking Ball, and that these subsequent releases were settling for smaller stakes. Perhaps it was time to let other people take up that battle, to let other voices rise up. After all these years, revisiting Wrecking Ball feels like saying goodbye to a Springsteen we once knew. On that album, he tried to connect with the mythologies of our country’s past in order to reckon with our present. Since then, it’s often felt as if we’re watching him disappear into those myths, into the past.