Album Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Wrecking Ball’

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Bruce Springsteen has harsh words for "fat cat" bankers on "Wrecking Ball," his 17th studio album. (Photo by Danny Clinch)

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.

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11 thoughts on “Album Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Wrecking Ball’

  1. Jimbo

    It really brings a tear to the eye that Springsteen, a fat cat himself, is railing against the fat cats. Is there just a little bit of irony in all of this?

  2. Tom Topping

    Springsteen at one time was, in my opinion, a viable voice for blue collar types like myself. His music over the last ten or 15 years (think Tom Joad) has really become insignificant and continues its downhill spiral.

    Besides, he IS a fat cat…ever try to get tickets for one of his shows????

  3. DT

    For starters, I am very excited for the release of Wrecking Ball. Just as I have always been excited for new Bruce Springsteen releases.

    But I have to offer something to the first person who left a comment to this review.

    If Bruce Springsteen really IS a “fat cat,” as you so over-simplistically state he is, why doesn’t he simply release an album extolling the virtues of the very rich and lambasting the poor, as Republican candidates for office do every day. And as so many legitimate “fat cats” do so often. Isn’t that what a “fat cat” should do.

    No, your misguided attack on Bruce Springsteen forgets the fact that Bruce himself came from very humble beginnings, bordering on poverty, and he has never, ever forgotten where he came from. Nor has he ever been able to look away from the struggles so many people continue to have, struggles he knew as well as anyone for the first 25 or so years of his life.

    Whether he is excoriating the treatment of the poor and less fortunate (The Ghost of Tom Joad, Born in the USA), expressing optimism in the human spirit (The Rising, Working on a Dream) or railing against a country that has so shamelessly trampled on the rights of its citizens (Magic) Bruce has spent a career NEVER forgetting where he came from and NEVER shying away from what he has always believed in. And NEVER waivering in his belief in the individual spirit.

    If that doesn’t impress you, or at least allow you to see him as more than some “fat cat,” I encourage you to listen to Toby Keith or Kid Rock, and leave the good, ernest music of Bruce Springsteen to the rest of us.

  4. Jimbo

    @DT: It never ceases to amaze me that the same people who rail against “fat cats” on Wall Street or in business have no problem with “fat cats” in Hollywood or in the music industry. All “fat cats” live the good life but because liberal fat cats wear their empathy for the poor and downtrodden on their sleeves, they are the “good” fat cats. You of course selectively ignore all the good that rich of a different political stripe do for people. You’ve drunk the liberal kool-aid and have nicely categorized everyone into the politically correct stereotypes.

    I actually like Springsteen and will keep listening to him as long as the liberal thought police allow me to do so. Keep sipping your lattes and railing on evil Republicans if it makes you feel better. Whatever.

    1. Eric R. Danton Post author

      It’s worth noting that while Springsteen is certainly rich, and tickets to his concerts can be hard to get, he didn’t wreck the economy or foreclose improperly on anyone’s house, which is the subtext of his protestations here.

  5. Jimbo

    I’m still waiting for the album that protests Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Dodd, Frank, and all the idiots who bought McMansions with zero down. Will that be out anytime soon or shall we just rail selectively on certain elements who contributed to the recent economic meltdown?

    Your liberal is showing but what would we expect from the Hartford Courant.

    1. Eric R. Danton Post author

      I’ll review that album, too, if anyone ever makes it. Throwing around accusations of liberal bias (or whatever you were planning to say there), though, is missing the point you made earlier: plenty of wealthy people, of all political stripes, do plenty of good. This isn’t (or shouldn’t be) an issue of political ideology.

      1. DT

        Well said, Eric. Although you shouldn’t expect this to be at all relevant to someone like this. This is merely one more forum at which he can rail at false specters of liberal idealogy, which he thinks is to blame for everything. It is as predictable as it is delusional, but then again, it’s all that people like this have.

        I am a huge Springsteen fan and I came here to read your review. Nice job, BTW. I am particularly excited to hear studio version “Land of Hope and Dreams,” one of my favorite Bruce songs ever. I look forward to getting the album tomorrow and to seeing him in Boston later this month.

        In the meantime, if I want paranoid right-wing ramblings (and I don’t) I can always visit Fox News. Although it’s nice to know I won’t be standing alongside the likes of this guy when I see Bruce in concert in a few weeks. :-)

      2. Jimbo

        …and if you want left wing ramblings you can read or listen to every other media outlet including this rag.

        I still find it laughable that a fat cat like Springsteen thinks he has the moral authority to call out other fat cats.

        More bread and circuses for the sheeple.

  6. Ryan

    I have to say, this is an excellent review. No nation has ever declined because they became too liberal or too conservative. Every nation has declined because it become too divided.

  7. Pingback: Bruce Springsteen plays Oct. 25 at XL Center in Hartford | Listen, Dammit.

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