BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: WRECKING BALL (2012)
1) We Take Care Of Our Own; 2) Easy Money; 3) Shackled And Drawn; 4) Jack Of All Trades; 5) Death To My Hometown; 6) This Depression; 7) Wrecking Ball; 8) You've Got It; 9) Rocky Ground; 10) Land Of Hope And Dreams; 11) We Are Alive.
Okay, so at least the surprisingly elevated «poppiness» of Working On A Dream put a special mark on it. Fans may have been irate at Bruce borrowing musical ideas from KISS, but one cannot deny that, in this way, he at least gave us all something to remember that record by. Fast forward now to 2012 and his next studio LP, and here is something that is completely by the numbers — conforming to all known stereotypes of The Boss and violating none of them.
Naturally, Springsteen feeds on social problems and regurgitates them as vibrating, spirited music, which is where he is usually at his best — and this time, the incentive behind the music and the anger has been the global financial crisis: a great opportunity to finally realize one's dream to become an authentic Woody Guthrie, strolling through Depression streets and providing voice services to all those devoid of voices. Never mind that by 2012, the crisis had largely abated; it only matters that there be a spark to light up the fire, and as prolific as Bruce usually is, he likes to have these sparks flying around, rarely venturing into the studio without a good pretext.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wrecking Ball conjures active memories of The Seeger Sessions: even though all the songs are original, they are mostly written in the folk paradigm, with simple, repetitive, traditional structures that have more in common with highland ballads than with Bruce's usual rock formula. Only a few members of the E Street Band appear on the record, and even then not on all the tracks; there are a few sax solos from Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011, a few tracks with Weinberg on the drums, and a couple Van Zandt mandolin tracks — the rest is taken care of by session musicians, which has a negative impact on the album's energy levels, but I guess if the Boss decided the E Street Band was not appropriate enough for these songs, he must have had his own reasons.
Alas, if he hoped this would be a new Rising — in the sense of that major «jolt» to put the nation back on its feet or something like that — I am afraid that it has only been one in the minds of Rolling Stone-style critics. The songs aren't exactly bad (in fact, relying on these formulas is a good guarantee against «badness» in general), but without the E Street Band, and with his own strength also beginning to give up after all these years, Bruce gets bogged down somewhere in between a whimper and a bang.
ʽWe Take Care Of Our Ownʼ, the opening song, was once again used in Obama's (second) presidential campaign, and it is a perfect song for a presidential campaign — loud, muscular, optimistic, smooth, safe, catchy, cozily played out by the New York String Section, and ultimately forgettable like any of your average anthems. It has its rallying use, I guess, but it is essentially one simple musical phrase repeated over and over again in a glossy manner: the muscle is there all right, but there is hardly any genuine sweat on it. It sounds like something made on order — and yes, I remember well that ʽBorn In The USAʼ was all made up according to the same principles (and its synthesized sound had dated fairly quickly, unlike this string orchestra thing), but at least back in 1984 Springsteen still had plenty of youthful soul and stamina to push into that form. ʽWe Take Care Of Our Ownʼ is just... limp.
As is most of everything else. A particularly good example is ʽLand Of Hope And Dreamsʼ, a fairly old song that was performed live as early as 1999, and used to be one of the highlights of Bruce's show — with a "this train..." section that may be the man's sincerest and most emotional contribution to the gospel genre — but this version is surprisingly flaccid compared to the way it used to sound, not just because the man's voice is giving out, but also because the arrangement replaces raw energy with a wall-of-sound approach. Still a good song, but give me the Live In New York version of this any time.
I have not even mentioned that the man's lyrics seem to turn more and more into tripe as the years go by. You may adore or hate the lyrics of ʽBorn To Runʼ, but you have to admit that, in any case whatsoever, something like "This is my confession / I need your heart / In this depression / I need your heart" is just way below the threshold — and this song is supposed to be a spiritual consolation for all the poor souls ravaged by the crisis. Or this: "We are alive / And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark / Our souls and spirits rise / To carry the fire and light the spark / To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart" — exactly how many dusty clichés are entrenched within this passage? No matter, as long as old and new fans alike are willing to gobble it up. And then there is the irony of the title track, which can be taken half-literally (as a cocky protest of the old Giants Stadium against its demolition) and figuratively (as a nation's cocky stand-off against economic trouble), but then when you realize that the Stadium was demolished after all, the line about "bring on your wrecking ball" takes on a fairly ironic shade.
In the end, as simply a collection of songs Wrecking Ball is relatively okay. But as a major social statement, it seems to me a transparent misfire, embarrassed by its own ambition and buried in its shallowness-masquerading-as-depth; and if Magic at least still showed signs of life, and Working On A Dream still showed signs of searching for life, Wrecking Ball is like a wad of chewing gum that finally ran out of the last bits of flavor. At the very least, it shows that being deeply moved by other people's troubles no longer guarantees high quality — or, who knows, it might show that in this particular case, the Boss was not that deeply moved by other people's troubles. After all, with the Democrats in power and the crisis clearly not being on the level of the Great Depression, it's hard to believe that the man was in some really deep apocalyptic mood; and thus, we just have another set of optimistic «we shall overcome» statements where, truth be told, it is not quite clear even to the artist what exactly it is that we need to be overcoming.
For the record, ʽRocky Groundʼ here features the first ever appearance of a rap vocal on a Springsteen album — provided by backup singer Michelle Moore (happily for all of us, Bruce changed his original mind about performing the rap himself). So there's at least one objective argument for defending the man's ability to keep up with the times, about twenty years too late but better late than never. This patented bit of sarcasm, however, has nothing to do with my thumbs down assessment of the album. Rather, the thumbs down have to do with the bitter realisation that, in a way, Bruce Springsteen has turned into a pale parody of his former self. And if you happen to disagree and are preparing an angry retort here, please take the time to relisten to Darkness On The Edge Of Town first, and then see if your angry retort has lost any of its anger.
Oh, and if you happen to be David Fricke from Rolling Stone, the author of a five-star review that began with the phrase "Wrecking Ball is the most despairing, confrontational and musically turbulent album Bruce Springsteen has ever made", I do so hope that you be rewarded in the afterlife by having to listen to nothing but Billy Joel, of whom you also seem to be a huge fan.