Bruce Springsteen is not typically one to sequelize his albums. Except for Nebraska/The Ghost of Tom Joad/Devils & Dust, which can rightfully be viewed as a sort of trio, most of his records attempt to do something markedly different from past efforts: Born to Run was a teenage epic, Darkness a working-class ode, The River a celebration of rock & roll, etc. Yet in Wrecking Ball we can see Bruce provide almost a direct sequel to one of his previous albums, one comprised of material that he didn’t even write — We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
Without a doubt, Wrecking Ball finds Bruce in full-on folk troubadour mode. He’s not so much singing about people as for them, as evidenced by the pronoun shift in his anthemic lead single, “We Take Care of Our Own.” Certainly Bruce has sung his share of bitingly sarcastic political anthems, but even in his most famous example, “Born in the USA,” there’s an “I” at the center. Not anymore. If there is a main character to be found in Wrecking Ball — as hokey as this sounds — it’s America itself.
These things happen. Artists age, and their fascination shifts outward. Such an evolution has been obvious even in Springsteen himself; his earliest records were enthralled with his own experiences; note that Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., even in its title, is all about a Boardwalk boy being overwhelmed by the big city. Starting with Darkness but mostly on The River and Nebraska, Bruce became fascinated instead with the plights of others, particularly the working man; lyrically, this is the content he’s most known for. So, in a way, Wrecking Ball is a natural progression for the man, though surely the current political/economic climate didn’t hurt.
Unfortunately, this album suffers a bit as a result. Man-of-the-people folk songs must, by their nature, be at least somewhat generic. That explains tracks like “Easy Money” and “Shackled and Drawn,” pretty simple songs with a down-on-his-luck narrator that could’ve been written in the 1920s. They’re fine, but when put side-by-side against Springsteen’s best work, who has amassed a fortune turning tragedy into poetry, they can’t really help but disappoint.
Lyrically, then, Wrecking Ball is certainly straightforward and unsubtle. Musically, it’s a little more interesting. The album displays a lot of Irish influence, probably both a reflection of Ireland’s strong folk tradition and of Springsteen’s buddies in the Dropkick Murphys, with whom he recorded a song last year (in fact, this album’s also kind of a sequel to Dropkick’s Going Out in Style). Sometimes that influence pays off (“Death to My Hometown”) and other times, again, it just seems fairly generic (sorry, “Easy Money”).
However, while the lyrics don’t much vary, the music changes pretty drastically for what’d be Side 2 of the record, which opens with “Wrecking Ball,” definitely the most rocking track on the record. That follows up with a Tunnel of Love throwback, the simple ballad “You’ve Got It.” Then we come to by far the most interesting song on the record, “Rocky Ground,” which manages to feel both very traditional and fairly modern. Its combination of a sampled sermon from half a century ago, a gospel choir and a hip-hop artist breakdown makes for a really refreshing track that is absolutely the standout here. Side 2 also includes a nicely reworked “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” which has been a Springsteen concert staple for years.
So is Wrecking Ball bad? Certainly not. Is it Bruce’s strongest work? Again, that’s a definite no. It’s a great-to-excellent folk record that sees Springsteen’s interests shift elsewhere. It’s well-orchestrated, with lyrics and messages important for our time. It’s no Born to Run or Darkness, but it’s also not Lucky Town/Human Touch. It’s certainly worth a listen, but try to check your expectations. If its disconnect to the rest of Bruce’s catalog is too strong to overcome, just imagine Pete Seeger has undergone some serious vocal surgery.
My Best of 2012 Playlist by Eric Garneau
After being inspired by some friends, for the past few years I’ve been really into documenting my musical exploration with year-end mixes. I realize this is not a particularly novel thing to do, but hey, who has original ideas any more? Anyway, this has gotten even easier to do thanks to new technology like Spotify. read more