I’ve been listening to Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, currently riding high in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Some have compared it to his 1984 album, Born In The USA, in that both are ‘state of the nation’ collections. Wrecking Ball‘s dominant theme is the economic hardship being experienced in America after the banking crash. Overall, I’ve been rather disappointed, though the album does contain three songs that rank among the very best that Springsteen has recorded, so perhaps I shouldn’t grouch. However, despite Springsteen’s heart being in the right place politically with almost every song raging against the banks and the lives wasted by unemployment, musically too many tracks sound bombastic and synthesised, while the songs just aren’t as well-crafted as they once were.
The classic Springsteen songs have at their heart verses that tell compelling, personal stories of characters with whom we can empathise. Around the verses Springsteen would build his inspiring choruses that expanded the personal vignettes with images or metaphors that made them universal. He once summed up the approach as ‘the verses are the blues, the chorus is the gospel’.
On Wrecking Ball the anthemic choruses have drowned out individual stories on most of the songs. The music is bombastic and Springsteen seems to shout the lines. A telling case in point is the song ‘Death To My Hometown’ which bears obvious similarities in its title to ‘My Hometown’ on Born In The USA. The latter song gained its strength by personalising the theme of industrial and urban decline with a story that spanned two generations:
I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
Id sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town
Hed tousle my hair and say son take a good look around
This is your hometown …
Now main streets whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there aint nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they aint coming back to
Your hometown, your hometown, your hometown, your hometown
Last night me and Kate we laid in bed talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
Im thirty-five we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good
This is your hometown …
But ‘Death to My Hometown’ just rants:
They destroyed our families’ factories and they took our homes
They left our bodies on the plains
The vultures picked our bones
So listen up, my Sonny boy
Be ready for when they come
For they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun
Now get yourself a song to sing and sing it ’til you’re done
Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber baron’s straight to hell
The greedy thieves that came around
And ate the flesh of everything they’ve found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Walk the streets as free men now
And they brought death to our hometown, boys
Similarly, the opening track, ‘We Take Care Of Our Own,’ mirrors the title track of Born In The USA (and, although it’s actually a call for a more caring, inclusive nation, will probably have its politics misconstrued in the same way, due to its chorus of ‘Wherever this flag’s flown/We take care of our own‘). But, unlike the 1984 song, has no story to tell – it’s all chorus (and to a European ear its patriotism, even if it’s the patriotism of the common man, sounds disturbing). All of this suggests that good politics doesn’t necessarily produce great songwriting.
If there’s a common theme to these songs, apart from the depredations of ‘the fat cats’ up ‘on bankers’ hill’, it’s the virtues of hard work and sweat: it would be interesting to count the number of times those two words crop up across the collection.
However, the last three songs on Wrecking Ball are much better, and redeem the earlier, rather indifferent tracks. ‘Rocky Ground’ is musically inspired, incorporating horns, a sample from an Alan Lomax field recording, and gospel singer Michelle Moore on both the chorus and a closing rap. The lyrics are overtly religious, as Springsteen draws on his Catholic upbringing for inspiration:
Forty days and nights of rain have washed this land
Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand
Find your flock, get them to higher ground
Flood waters rising and we’re Canaan bound
We’ve been traveling over rocky ground, rocky ground …
Rise up shepherd, rise up
Your flock has roamed far from the hills
Stars have faded, the sky is still
Sun’s in the heavens and a new day’s rising
You use your muscle and your mind and you pray your best
That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest
You raise your children and you teach ‘them to walk straight and sure
You pray that hard times, hard times, come no more
You try to sleep, you toss and turn, the bottom’s dropping out
Where you once had faith now there’s only doubt
You pray for guidance, only silence now meets your prayers …
There’s a new recording of ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’, first released on the Live in New York City album. This studio version is superb, and acquires a special significance when midway through the song, Clarence Clemons contributes his only saxophone solo on the album. This was his last recording.
The closing track, ‘We Are Alive, has a similar concept to ‘The Rising’: the dead rising from their graves. Here, Springsteen celebrates Americans who died fighting for a better future: railroad workers who took part in the Great Strike of 1877, civil rights activists and migrants seeking a better life in El Norte:
We are alive
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
A voice cried out, I was killed in Maryland in 1877
When the railroad workers made their stand
Well, I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham
Well, I died last year crossing the southern desert
My children left behind in San Pablo
Well they left our bodies here to rot
Oh please let them know
We are alive
Oh, 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
One of the most insightful reviews of the album was by David Fricke in Rolling Stone. He begins:
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.
Rolling Stone also has a feature in which Springsteen explains the album.
Meanwhile, Bruce Springsteen gave the keynote speech at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. In an sometimes halting performance that alternated between the inspiring and the mundane, he surveyed the musical influences that have shaped his music, and ended with a stirring rallying cry that reads better on the page than it sounded when Bruce delivered it:
Rumble, young musicians, rumble. Open your ears, open your hearts. Don’t take yourselves too seriously and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have iron clad confidence. But doubt! It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town and you suck. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well in your heart and head at all times. If it does not drive you crazy it will make you strong. Stay hard, stay hungry and stay alive.
Springsteen recited a litany of musicians who helped shape his music and his politics and his sense of what made a great rock song. In particular he singled out the Animals, crediteding the band with introducing him to the idea that politics and social anger had a place in popular music. Springsteen picked up his guitar and sang a few verses from the Animals’ hit ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’. Finishing, Springsteen said:
That’s every song I have written. That’s all of them. I’m not kidding either … it was the first time I felt I heard something come across the radio that mirrored my home life and my childhood.
For Springsteen, Soul, Motown, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Hank Williams and country music were all formative influences. Country music had taught him the importance of focussing on telling the stories of ordinary men and women in his songs. ‘In country music I found the adult blues. I found the working men and women’s stories I had been looking for,’ he said (though he added that it lacked the political bite that he sought: ‘Country seemed not to question why. It was about doing then dying, screwing then crying, boozing then trying’. He found the perfect combination in the work of Woody Guthrie: ‘Woody’s world was a world where fatalism was tempered by a practical idealism … he is a big, big ghost in the machine’.