“The great challenge of adulthood is holding on to your idealism, after you lose your innocence” – Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen’s albums have always been reflective not only of his current emotional state and whatever demons he may be wrestling, but also of a specific time in our collective societal discourse. The River (1980) told the stories of struggling blue collar families – including one lifted from the lives of Springsteen’s sister and his brother-in-law – during the recession of the late 70s/early 80s. 2007’s Magic spoke to the growing sense of disillusionment in America. And of course, 2002’s The Rising was a response to the events of 9/11; it was the heavy-hearted musical catharsis that we needed in the wake of such tragedy.
Wrecking Ball is no different. While it is primarily a rock album – with clear folk, Irish, and gospel influences that strikingly recall The Seeger Sessions – it is just as much about holding a mirror up to nature. Though not all of these songs were initially written for this particular album (see: “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “Wrecking Ball“), it feels very much like a musical work that is a product of this time in America. Feelings of animosity and disappointment are heavily pervasive here, as they are across the country, but I would argue those things do not make up the theme of this album. Instead, this album is about the battle against cynicism and the fight to retain hope in the face of all that struggle. The thematic question is, “Where do we go from here?” not, “Why keep going at all?”.
The entire album is admittedly a bit of a mash-up of different styles, including the awesome Irish punk sound of “Death to My Hometown“, the bluesy “You’ve Got It“, and even the inclusion of a rap verse in the spiritual “Rocky Ground“. This is Springsteen and the man knows how to craft an album. The emotional journey one takes from start to finish is just as, if not more, important than the experience of listening to compartmentalized tracks. This is why, when the Boss drops you into the darkness (“This Depression“), he next resurrects a sense of purpose through resolute anger in the following track (“Wrecking Ball”).
Speaking of which, let’s talk tunes: Wrecking Ball‘s opening track, “We Take Care of Our Own” is a protest arena rock number just waiting to be misinterpreted by those not listening to the lyrics, ala “Born in the U.S.A.” and the 1984 Reagan re-election campaign. Fingers crossed that someone grossly misuses “We Take Care of Our Own” in a political campaign this year so that I may feel intellectually superior! Through the uptempo claps and heavy rock energy, the number is actually an indictment of the failures of our democracy and the erosion of the long-held belief in the American Dream – whatever the hell that means now.
The album then continues down on the path of protest with “Easy Money” and “Shackled and Drawn” before coming up against the sobering wall of reality in “Jack of All Trades“: it’s a stripped down character song so heartbreaking that it utterly destroyed me upon first listen. The narrator captures the voice of millions hurting today when he says,
So you use what you’ve got, and you learn to make do
You take the old, you make it new
If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight
I’m a Jack of all trades, we’ll be alright
These are the hard-bitten words of someone struggling to make ends meet by any means necessary; it’s a voice not often heard in today’s pop music. If you say don’t know anyone who fits into that category – someone who lost their home, someone who is unemployed, or underemployed – then you are blissfully ignorant of what is going on in just about every community across the country. And to that I would say: don’t be an asshole. Open your eyes and you will see that these people are all around you, if you’re not already the one struggling.
In my (not so) humble opinion, the highlight of the album is the new reworking of “Land of Hope and Dreams” (a close second: The beautifully nuanced folk revival piece “We Are Alive“). The song has been a popular E Street concert number since 1999 but here the Boss’s voice crackles with new emotion, elevates the Woody Guthrie folk influences, and turns the whole thing into a pluralistic reawakening. In this song, the Boss has done the impossible: delivered a number of such pure vigilante joy AND helped me to overcome any cynical impulse I may have had to roll my eyes. How? Maybe because the song doesn’t make any promises. Instead, it’s an invitation. A rallying cry to believe in the better. What can I say? It really got me.
One final word on “Land of Hope and Dreams”: it’s been noted that it is not directly in memoriam to the departed and beloved Big Man Clarence Clemons (whereas the ballad “The Last Carnival” from Working on a Dream, served as a tribute to longtime E Street Band member Danny Federici, who passed away in 2008 after a battle with melanoma). Still, it’s the most fitting of tributes paid to a lost friend and colleague: on this version of “Land of Hope and Dreams” we have the pleasure of hearing one of the last recordings of Clarence and his glorious rip-open-the-sky-to-reveal-the-heavens saxophone sound. His solo is a deeply affecting moment and possibly the strongest heartbeat in a song that wasn’t easy to get through without teary eyes to begin with. Here it becomes Clemons’s glorious swan song.
Springsteen’s music (like any art worth its salt) more often than not has a life beyond it’s original conception. It continues to draw breath long after the specific period in our history to which it was reacting has passed. Case in point: one of the most poignant songs from 2002’s The Rising, “My City of Ruins“, was originally written in 2000 for a benefit concert supporting the revitalization of Asbury Park, New Jersey. But when history took a tragic turn on September 11, 2001, the song took on a different and even more profound association. Today, with one glimpse at the abandoned factories, tornado-devastated towns, or the foreclosure signs flooding neighborhoods across the country, the song once again resonates on a whole new level. This is because when Springsteen is struggling with something – be it is grasping for an emotional lifeline to carry you through an unspeakable national tragedy, reconciling the death of a dream (personal or even the American one), or coming to terms with the tragedy of simply living – he doesn’t claim to have all the answers. His music is a conversation and we, the listener, are part of it with him.
I believe that, with time, Wrecking Ball will prove to be no different. It’s an angry album, for sure. But that anger – in true Springsteen form – is not impenetrable by hope. For that reason alone, Wrecking Ball emerges as a triumph. Of course, there are a few missteps and the album is far from perfect. The repetitive “Easy Money” isn’t my favorite track here because it is immediately eclipsed by the following and more purposeful “Shackled and Drawn”. But throughout the album – even while the Boss is experimenting with some new sounds and sonic flourishes – it all still feels very much like the voice of an old friend. And in times like these, that’s the voice we need.