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.