In late 2010, Bruce Springsteen told Rolling Stone that he had just written his first song about a "guy that wears a tie." The songwriter had spent much of his career writing about characters struggling in tough economic times, but the financial crisis convinced him it was time to write about the people and forces that brought America to this ugly point.
The result is Wrecking Ball (out March 6th), a scathing indictment of Wall Street greed and corruption and a look into the devastation they have wrought. "This is as direct a record as I ever made," Springsteen tells Rolling Stone. "That's with the possible exception of Nebraska, which this record has a lot in common with."
The stark subject matter is paired with an experimental sonic palette that Springsteen created with producer Ron Aniello and a cast of session players, including Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. "The record basically started out as folk music – just me and a guitar singing these songs," says Springsteen. "Then Ron brought a large library of sound that allowed me to explore – like maybe a hip-hop drum loop or country-blues stomp loop. The actual drums came later. There was no preconceived set of instruments that needed to be used – I could go anywhere, do anything, use anything. It was very wide open."
Springsteen's challenge over the past couple of months has been to find a way to bring this material to life onstage with the E Street Band. They kick off a massive world tour on March 18th at the Philips Arena in Atlanta – about two weeks after the album hits shelves. "When we play it live, it's going to be a little different," says E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt. "The songs work really well onstage, though."
Wrecking Ball's opener, "We Take Care of Our Own," poses a question: Does America live up to its principles? The songs that follow make the answer clear. The narrator of the slow waltz "Jack of All Trades" struggles to find work, and the anti-hero of the country-folk "Easy Money" decides to imitate "all them fat cats" on Wall Street by turning to crime. The similarly uptempo "Shackled and Drawn," meanwhile, offers a political analysis worthy of Woody Guthrie: "Gambling man rolls the dice, working-man pays the bill/It's still fat and easy up on banker's hill/Up on banker's hill, the party's going strong/Down here below, we're shackled and drawn."
The album's themes shift midway through, as economic despair gives way to a quest for spiritual redemption. It ends on a hopeful note with "We Are Alive." The song takes on an Irish-wake feel, as Springsteen celebrates Americans who died fighting for progress: "I was killed in Maryland in 1877/When the railroad workers made their stand/I was killed in 1963/One Sunday morning in Birmingham/I died last year crossing the southern desert/My children left behind in San Pablo . . . We are alive/And though we lie alone/Here in the dark/Our souls will rise/ To carry the fire and light the spark/To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart."
There are genuine musical surprises throughout. The cinematic "Rocky Ground" expands on the hip-hop-inspired vibe of "Streets of Philadelphia," while prominently featuring the voice of gospel singer Michelle Moore, who even delivers a brief, Springsteen-penned rap. "Death to My Hometown" is a Celtic-influenced foot-stomper that wouldn't sound out of place on a Dropkick Murphys album. "We Are Alive" borrows the horn riff from Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," while "Land of Hope and Dreams" (originally played live with the E Street Band in 1999) has been reworked with electronic drums and a gospel choir.
That song has a saxophone solo by the late Clarence Clemons. Clemons can also be heard on "Wrecking Ball," alongside trumpeter Curt Ramm – who will be in the five-piece horn section hitting the road with Springsteen on his upcoming tour. That horn section will include two sax players – Ed Manion, who toured with Springsteen in his Sessions Band, and the Big Man's nephew, Jake Clemons. "Whoever plays the sax part will emerge from the horn section, then they go back to the horn section," says Van Zandt. "So it takes the pressure off that spotlight of suggesting that he's replacing Clarence, which is just impossible to do." Audiences will catch a preview of the upcoming tour when Springsteen and the E Street Band play New York's Apollo Theater on March 9th to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Sirius Satellite Radio.
Van Zandt says that the show will feature songs from Wrecking Ball, in addition to material from The Promise, Springsteen's 2010 collection of outtakes from Darkness on the Edge of Town. "But we're always going to play the classics, which is a real fun aspect of a show," Van Zandt says. "If you come to five different shows, you're going to hear we've regularly changed about a third of the show every single night. So by the time you come to five or six shows, you'll have seen at least three different versions of the show."
This story is from the March 15, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.