For all their subversionary subtext, protest songs have usually concerned themselves primarily with questions of fairness — any subversion, really, is most often in the eye of the beholder.
So it is with the songs on “Wrecking Ball” (Columbia), the latest from Bruce Springsteen. It’s been described as an “angry” album, and while it’s certainly scathing in the most direct way we’ve ever heard from Springsteen, the mood on “Wrecking Ball” isn’t as simple or reflexive as anger: Springsteen is disgusted.
Why wouldn’t he be? His 17th studio album arrives at a time of turmoil in our country, when the divisions among us resonate more deeply than our commonalities. Our leaders, who claim to have our highest good in mind, more often resemble self-serving toads with messianic complexes, exploiting our fears for their own ends. Those who have lost their jobs and homes suffer mockery from the gamblers whose recklessness capsized the economy in the first place.
Hardly seems fair, does it?
Not to Springsteen, who converts it into the fuel that fires “Wrecking Ball.” The first half of the album is especially blistering in its scorn for the architects of economic malaise. He refers to them variously as “fat cats” and “robber barons,” “greedy thieves” grown fat at the never-ending party on “banker’s hill,” at the expense of the working stiffs left to settle accounts.
Those working stiffs are, as they usually are for Springsteen, the heroes of these songs, which come with pointed titles like “Jack of All Trades,” “Easy Money,” “Shackled and Drawn” and “Death to My Hometown,” which features some of the most stinging lyrics Springsteen has ever written.
“They destroyed our families, factories/ And they took our homes,” he sings over a booming beat on the Celtic-flavored tune, fleshed out with penny whistle, violin and accordion. “They left our bodies on the plains/ The vultures picked our bones.”
Eat your heart out, Joe Hill.
For all his excoriations, though, Springsteen sidesteps the false divide between left and right. He’s concerned less with liberal and conservative, or even rich and poor, than with what’s fair. His working-class heroes simply want the chance to stand on their own, to do honest work for honest pay, with no hidden catches.
“I always loved the feel of sweat on my shirt/ Stand back son and let a man work,” he sings on “Shackled and Drawn.”
Nostalgic? Sure, and idealistic, too, but there’s no rock ’n’ roll — or protest music — without idealism.
Actually, “Wrecking Ball” is closer in musical spirit to “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” Springsteen’s folky 2006 tribute to Pete Seeger. Still, it’s not a direct descendent: Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello adds a roiling solo to “Jack of All Trades” and anguished, atmospheric leads to “This Depression”; and gospel singer Michelle Moore delivers an incongruous, if low-key, rap on “Rocky Ground.”
Apart from their contributions, though, most of the album is colored by folk and gospel. Springsteen and co-producer Ron Aniello built many of the songs on stomping beats, topped with violin, banjo, steel guitars and a mess of horns and backing vocals. See-saw bass and layers of vocal harmony give “Shackled and Drawn” a muscular jug-band feel, while frayed-edge violin punctuates the sneering lyrics of a narrator on the make on “Easy Money.”
It makes for an earthier sound than Springsteen’s other recent efforts — in fact, more of these songs feature musicians from the “Seeger Sessions” than members of the E Street Band, though Clarence Clemons recorded saxophone parts for two tracks before he died last year.
One of them, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” has turned up in Springsteen’s live sets for more than a decade. Here, it fits into the spiritual theme that swells on the second half of the album, offering solace to weary, searching souls who are raised up in the righteous blast of Clemons’ ringing solos.
The song is a redemptive counterpoint to opener “We Take Care of Our Own,” which, like “Born In the U.S.A.” a quarter-century ago, has been mistaken for a rah-rah expression of patriotism that it’s not: The New York Times, for one, dismissed it for mistaking “jingoism for empathy.”
On the contrary, Springsteen has spent much of his career pointing out the various ways in which we don’t take care of our own. Not only is this song a rebuke, it’s aspirational: He’s saying we should take care of our own, whether they’re stranded by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, languishing neglected in U.S. military hospitals or simply ground in the gears of a system in which compassion doesn’t pay.
Not only is taking care of them fair, Springsteen argues, it’s right.