There will be those that believe a millionaire rock star singing about poor people and hard work, as Bruce Springsteen so passionately does on his powerful new album "Wrecking Ball," to be the height of hypocrisy. But to do so would be both shortsighted and uninformed. First, as a pedigreed Jersey shore rat raised in economically depressed Freehold, N.J., Springsteen knows a thing or two about economic frustration. And, secondly, anyone who has seen Springsteen perform at any one of thousands of shows over the past 40 years, with or without his E Street Band, is well aware that he packs his lunch pail every night and welcomes overtime.
"Wrecking Ball," Springsteen's 17th studio album, finds the artist exploring familiar working class territory, but with a vigor and fearlessness not seen since 2002's equally-inspired "The Rising." Produced by Springsteen with Ron Aniello, the characters that populate most of the album's 11 tracks are generally having a pretty tough go of it, to say the least. While sometimes not above contemplating crime and murder, as with the anti-heroes in 1980's thematically similar "Nebraska" would have opted, the protagonists of "Wrecking Ball" more often just want to put in an honest day's work. With its gritty portrayal of the danger at hand when lives are lived on the edge of collapse, "Wrecking Ball" does indeed recall "Nebraska," though the newer record is far more complex musically and more pointed in its observations.
There is a pervasive element of desperation in "Wrecking Ball," but nobody here is giving up. "Hold tight to your anger," Springsteen snarls on the title cut. The characters here seek self-respect and purpose, and they maintain their pride if not always their identity. "Stand back, son, and let a man work" Springsteen advises in the pounding "Shackled And Drawn," and the inability to do so provides the backdrop for the album's primary struggle. Bankers and other vaguely-defined power brokers draw ire, and the tender ballad "Jack Of All Trades" becomes decidedly less tender as the song draws to a close, with the singer expressing an unnerving willingness to "shoot the bastards on sight."
This is Springsteen with his work boots on, and the music on "Wrecking Ball" follows suit, alternating between loud, percussive, Seeger Sessions-on-steroids romps and steely, subdued dirges, with detours in a wide range of directions. The sound blends contemporary production with familiar Springsteen-esque guitars and drums, while varied influences including gospel, blues, country and even rap surface throughout, often in unexpected ways.
More than anything, "Wrecking Ball" is a record with heart. Worth noting in the liners is the artist's poignant tribute to his longtime band mate Clarence Clemons, the beloved E Street Band sax man who died last year. This should be considered Springsteen's definitive take on the Big Man's legacy, proclaimed here as "Too fuckin' big to die."
Here's a Track-By-Track Take on "Wrecking Ball":
"We Take Care of Our Own"
"We Take Care Of Our Own" The lead-off single Springsteen and the E Streeters debuted with vitality at the Grammys, this pounding, patriotic rocker serves as the album's moral compass and seems a likely cut to open shows on the upcoming tour.
"Easy Money" Rootsy and percussive, "Easy Money" features one of Springsteen's more charismatic vocals and free-wheelin' lyrics but, with its talk of Smith & Wessons and burnin' hellfire, the song's undercurrent of rough intentions belies its jaunty musicality and bright choral arrangement.
"Shackled And Drawn" Cajun inflections and a sprightly rhythm power this workingman anthem, but once again Springsteen juxtaposes the music against frustration and powerlessness. Another top-shelf vocal, spiced with whoops and shouts.
"Jack Of All Trades" A gorgeous, piano-based ballad meant to inspire and encourage, a man assuring his love he's willing to do whatever labor necessary for them to get by. He sounds unconvinced of his own promises of "we'll be alright," and it's clear bad things could happen. Killer guitar coda.
"Death To My Hometown" Another pounding, rhythmic piece, featuring African rhythms blended with a Celtic-tinged melody and vocal, almost a battle march. One of the most descriptive lyrics on the record.
"This Depression" The biggest downer on the album, and a role reversal of "Jack Of All Trades." Seldom has Springsteen displayed this much vulnerability, and this funeral dirge boasts inspired guitar work from Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine).
"Wrecking Ball" First heard by fans on 2009's "Working On A Dream" tour as a rousing send-off for New Jersey's Giants Stadium, "Wrecking Ball" takes on a whole new life in the context of this record. This is an entity, human or otherwise, reconciled to its fate but ever defiant. One of only two tracks on the album to include Clemons' saxophone, with its refrain of "hard times come and hard times go," Wrecking Ball" is destined to become a classic.
"You Got It" Wrecking Ball's lightest moment, this is a lusty, bluesy mid-tempo that would go over equally well in a wedding chapel or back seat.
"Rocky Ground" Musically ambitious and completely captivating, "Rocky Ground" thematically fits perfectly with the tone of the album. But, with its inspired vocal arrangement, gospel underpinnings and Michelle Moore rap, it is unlike anything Springsteen has done before.
"Land Of Hope And Dreams" Another song familiar to Springsteen fans, this one has been a live staple since the late '90s and finds a fitting home here in a rare optimistic turn. A broad, anthemic slice of Americana, the characters could be the ones from "Thunder Road" some 30 years on, unbowed.
"We Are Alive" Could be alternatively titled "Tales From a Graveyard" (and slyly does come to a whistling conclusion) this is a strange one, but nonetheless fascinating. "We Are Alive" includes descriptive lyrics and a credited melodic line from the Johnny Cash classic "Ring Of Fire," and is ultimately optimistic, a fitting close to one of Springsteen's best albums.