Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball: A First Listen
Bruce Springsteen has done a lot in the last 20 years: toured for John Kerry, immortalized a horrific moment of police brutality in "American Skin (41 Shots)," and put his money where his mouth is as America's Poster Boy, with a big fat folk album enlisting a dozen sepia-toned authenticity arbiters, as well as a dusty Nebraska-y one that counted anal sex among its details. What he hasn't done is made a record as memorable as any from the 20 years preceding. But excellent dribs and drabs (2007's rightfully Magnetic Fields-compared "Your Own Worst Enemy," the Seeger band's recast of Nebraska's "Open All Night") continue to elicit hope. So did the announcement that this week's Wrecking Ball promises to do for Occupy (an event whose workings continue in the present tense) what the The Rising attempted for 9/11 (an event that was final and well-mythologized before Springsteen could articulate his feelings). This is the Boss' juiciest shot since Vietnam at articulating the compassion in American frustration -- and I'm a betting man.
"We Take Care of Our Own"
Glockenspiel! For that alone, this is his best, E Street-est opener in years. Unfortunately for said glockenspiel, this melody is as one-note and underdeveloped as "Radio Nowhere," another fine song released to radio nowhere. Unfortunately, the title adds no further commentary to this supposed affront to the banking firm of Romney & Santorum.
Does "Kumbaya" mean anything to you personally? That's quickly becoming the grand effect of this record: beauteous, cavernous chanting short on meaning that anyone but a political candidate can use.
"Shackled and Drawn"
What I didn't anticipate is so how compelling these fiddle-and-choir jams would be, though you don't know pop if you didn't think the drums would be this loud. The Seeger Sessions has contorted the Boss' voice beyond repair, but that's no reason not to have fun with his full-throated gospel tunes. Just don't find them so uplifting that you glance for lyrics. The faux-congregation leader fadeout is cute.
"Jack of All Trades"
"Clean the leaves out your drain/ I'm in your room to keep out the rain" -- finally, an image, three songs late onto a record that announced itself as centrist bait "from the shotgun shack to the Superdome." I'd like to take care of him all right. In waltz time for six minutes, Bruce makes good on that common man thing he's been working for 40 years. Few common men have a horn section, but he really shows his commonness by gunning down his oppressors in the final verses with a flashy six-string salute from Tom Morello.
"Death to My Hometown"
Squishing his voice (and kick drum) even more like Warren Zevon, pounding the floor and announcing his new Irish murmur with matching pennywhistles, this is the best, most jubilant piece of music Springsteen has penned in ages, and its battle imagery ("no powder flash blinded the eye"; "the vultures picked their bones") is the least simplistic on the record. Which is a hoot considering this is the simplest us-or-them fight song here. Could Occupiers use it? Probably not. But anyone with a desire to sing along with a Springsteen chorus again could.
"I've been lost but never this lost," he admits, and it's true: he's overrelying on that pounding Zevon-ness, that growl, and probably his looks, too. But "I need your heart/ In this depression" is too true to deny. It's just that TV on the Radio's Dear Science did so much more with it.
From the first second, this is classic Bruce: "Come on take your best shot/ Let's see what you got," a Meadowlands namecheck, more of that glockenspiel and violin, a gorgeously plain melody with careerist horns for extra kick. The second-most rousing thing here, which I suppose means second-best until I warm to that Morello cameo. The problem is it feels bushleague (and Bush-league; should we really be daring the wreckers to further wreck us?). Word to rockist liberals: Brad Paisley ("A Man Don't Have to Die") and Miranda Lambert ("Lemon Drop") had more to say than that.
"You've Got It"
While we're drowning in nonspecifics, we might as well hit on a sexy one that hinges on a funky if nonspecific "it." "Honey it ain't got a name/ You just know it when you see it": porn?
I like this album a lot more than I'm probably letting on, especially when it's playing in the background, which is suspicious. Whose rousing chants sound better from far away? And what's with the whole distance thing anyway? It's that same lack of intimacy that's keeping me from loving the Men's Open Your Heart. Whether albums are supposed to speak to you directly or work as a blank canvas for useful thoughts is your opinion, but this guy did used to have more to say besides sending prayers. He even intertwines a rapper with nothing to say. This record is gorgeous but bland.
"Land of Hope and Dreams"
After the title tune, this is the second thing here that could pass muster on a lot of other Boss albums ("thunder's rolling down this track"), and it's got a real sad memento of Clarence Clemons' much-missed honking greatness. Maybe I'm imagining things, but the singing steps it up a notch. Seven minutes, feels shorter. Always feels like you've already heard it before, but what Bruce song doesn't when you hear it for the first time?
"We Are Alive"
A weird, not-quite-uplifting little boogie to end the thing -- where's the "We Take Care of Our Own" reprise? David Fricke apparently called this album (which has no bad songs) "bravely apolitical," which is insane. Yeah, I get it, both sides are to blame, blah blah. But you're going to have to pick one in order to activate any kind of care you want to take of your own in November. And I do wish this smart, well-meaning vet had something active to say about that. Reassuring his minions that hard times come and go unwittingly separates him from the common folk he wishes he could still portray. The common folk ignored his Wal-Mart exclusive last record because they're in the streets with shit to do.
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