When I was 10, my parents drove me down to New Jersey to see Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. As a young, musically inexperienced kid, my only experiences with Springsteen’s music were second rate karaoke renditions of “Born in the U.S.A” and “Dancing in the Dark.” I was quite simply unprepared for what would be the best concert I’d ever seen in my life. Still fresh from the shock and disillusion caused by 9/11, Springsteen sang almost the entirety of his 2002 album The Rising in his hometown New Jersey. I have never seen a crowd so emotional; people were crying, holding strangers hands and singing with Springsteen at the top of their lungs. It was indescribable.
Fast forward almost a decade and here I am with Wrecking Ball, Springsteen’s 17th studio album and his first album in three years. Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests and the global economic downturn, this album features Springsteen telling the tales of the down-and-out American trying to make it in a world full of corporate corruption and greed. It is impossible not to compare this new piece to The Rising, Springsteen’s other commentary on an American crisis in the last decade. But unlike The Rising, in which Springsteen found a few places for songs of inspiration and hope, most of these songs are just downright sad.
The general solemnity of the album may also have to do with some recent upsetting events in Springsteen’s personal life, namely the death of his band member and close friend, saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Clemons contributes to the title track and “Land of Hope and Dreams.” On this album, Springsteen is at his most angry and most serious.
Loaded with so many the political and emotionally charged messages, how does the album actually sound? Mostly pretty great. Most of the lyrics and themes are typical storyteller-Springsteen — the broken heroes, the girls in red dresses, the small town dreams. Sonically, however, The Boss heads towards some interesting places. The opening track and lead single, “We Take Care of Our Own,” is Springsteen at his finest — empowering, defiant and inspirational. It’s the kind of song that will sound awesome in a stadium venue.
The title track is another standout, a song apparently written years ago but still relevant in the zeitgeist of 2012. The rock legend also impresses on his extensive use of Irish folk, which might prove controversial among his most loyal fans. The Gaelic sounds actually work quite well for the most part. They recall the early 20th century immigrant experience, enhancing the pro-worker message.
Springsteen also experiments with different types of sounds, albeit with mixed results. For the first time, he incorporates hip-hop into his traditional folk-rock genre. On the one hand, the urban-influenced beats present in parts of “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “Shackled and Drawn” contrast the opposing Irish-folk sounds very well, richly expressing the culture of city life. The sudden rap in “Rocky Ground” is the most alarming segment on the album. While Springsteen should be lauded for his ambition, the rap feels wildly out of place in the otherwise pretty great song. Springsteen even throws some mariachi into the mix, as on the closing song “American Land.” The result is slightly amusing and silly, but at least it ends the mostly depressing album on a positive note.
The songs that most people will choose to skip will be the slower and sadder ones, such as “Jack of All Trades,” “This Depression” and “Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale).” This is not to say that these songs are bad (they are beautiful, really). Springsteen is, however, at his best and most listenable when he is getting America back up on its feet, which made The Rising such an enormous success and a monumental point in American music. On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen seriously contemplates the state of American affairs, and doesn’t offer much room for inspiring songs. The result is an album that’s mostly good, but also mostly grim.