Wrecking Ball is the most despairing, confrontational and musically turbulent album Bruce Springsteen has ever made. He is angry and accusing in these songs, to the point of exhaustion, with grave reason. The America here is a scorched earth: razed by profiteers, and suffering a shameful erosion in truly democratic values and national charity. The surrender running through the chain-gang march and Springsteen’s muddy-river growl in “Shackled and Drawn”; the double meaning loaded into the ballad “This Depression”; the reproach driving “We Take Care of Our Own,” a song so obviously about abandoned ideals and mutual blame that no candidate would dare touch it: This is darkness gone way past the edge of town, to the heart of the republic.
Springsteen has been here before, a lot. He drew from his own father’s working life for the numbed spirits on the assembly line in 1978’s “Factory.” But the diminished dreams haunting The River and the cycles of hunger and violence in “The Ghost of Tom Joad” always came with light: a stubborn faith in American honor and our beter natures. Even The Rising, Springsteen’s response to the crushing anguish and moral challenges of 9/11, was written and played to heal and unify, a masterful balance of mourning and the guitar-army backbone of the E Street Band.
On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen throws nuance to the curb. “Death to My Hometown” is an obvious allusion to the battered nostalgia of “My Hometown,” on 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. But even the vacant storefronts in the latter song are gone now; the place has been flattened. “I never heard a sound/The marauders raided in the dark/And brought death to my hometown,” Springsteen sings, a blunt indictment of cold greed and congressional impotence. And he delivers it like delicious revenge, with a robust Irish-wake rhythm and noble-warrior glaze: a sample from a 1959 Alan Lomax recording of the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers. The effect is a dance through ashes with a reminder: In a righteous fight, music is still good ammo. “They’ll be returning sure as the rising sun,” Springsteen warns. “Get yourself a song to sing…. Sing it hard and sing it well/Send the robber barons straight to hell.” It’s Woody Guthrie in this foreclosure era with a new sticker on his guitar: THIS MACHINE KILLS GIANT VAMPIRE SQUID.
Wrecking Ball is Springsteen’s first album of new songs without the full, disciplined fire of his E Street Band since 2005’s Devils & Dust. It is his first, too, with a new co-producer, Ron Aniello, whose more pop-oriented credits include a 2007 solo album by Springsteen’s wife and E Street vocalist, Patti Scialfa. Springsteen gives a pair of prominent guitar solos to fellow traveler Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, including the high, warming cries that counter the heartsickness in “My Depression.” But for the most part, Springsteen and Aniello are their own basic-track combo: working with loops lathered in thick, wet echo, playing many of the instruments themselves before laying on the strings, folk-jubilee accordion, pealing brass and choral voices.
The effect is a manic, compelling seesaw between intimacy and blowout, anguish and uplift, that echoes the emotional zigzags and hair-trigger temper in the songwriting. “The blood on our hands will come back to us twice,” Springsteen laments in the sufferer’s hymn “Rocky Ground,” over a hip-hop tension with storefront-chapel choruses. He is also ready to brawl. “C’mon and take your best shot/Let me see what you got,” Springsteen taunts in “Wrecking Ball,” a song he debuted live in 2009 as a goodbye to the old Giants Stadium but repurposes here as a battle of wills (“Hold tight to your anger/And don’t fall to your fears”) with big-band charge and Jersey-hardass swagger.
Actually, for an election year, Wrecking Ball is a boldly apolitical record. The basic premise is that the true business of politics – responsible governing, a commerce of shared rewards – is broken, with plenty of guilt to go around. It may be a sign of how hard optimism is to come by that Springsteen covers himself here – reviving “Land of Hope and Dreams,” originally released on 2001’s Live in New York City – to insist all is not lost. He makes a glorious case. The new arrangement is Phil Spector gone to church with help from Curtis Mayfield. You get resurrection, too. The late Clarence Clemons is featured on saxophone, a beautiful extension of his life with Springsteen.
But Springsteen’s most gripping new song on Wrecking Ball is the one that ends in the worst kind of frustration. In the weighed-down moan and slow-walk piano of “Jack of All Trades,” Springsteen plays a guy from the new permalance working class, skilled and drifting, with no benefits, security or, by the end, patience. “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight,” he swears between Morello’s strafing bursts of guitar. Because there is no such thing as free enterprise. Someone, usually at the bottom of the chain, pays for that share price. And someday, that stone may demand blood in return.
Listen to “We Take Care of Our Own”: