The release of a new Bruce Springsteen album is always important to me, ever since that moment, back in 1978, when I was lying in bed, in the darkness, listening to a review of new albums on the radio, and on came “Racing In The Streets” off “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”. And then “Candy’s Room’, or maybe it was “Badlands” – my memory of that is a little hazy. I was hooked. Bruce quickly became the most important artist in my musical world, and he’s stayed that way ever since. There’s usually something I’m listening to more, and not every album he’s released has been top notch, but when it comes to the crunch, it is Bruce’s music that has meant more to me than anything else ever since that chance encounter in ’78.
And so to “Wrecking Ball”. The album was preceded by some good reviews. People were saying it was a real return to form (after “Working on A Dream” which I have to say, was probably Bruce’s weakest ever. With that first song, “Outlaw Pete”, the first ever song that I genuinely just didn’t like). There was lots of excitement – especially in the US – about how angry the album was, how it was a return to Bruce as the spokesman for the ordinary man, buffeted by the economic crisis, forgotten while the Government worked out how to save the banks. It sounded like it was going to be good.
So how is it, does it live up to those expectations? I’ve been listening to it a lot, to decide what I really think. To get past that first reaction that it’s Bruce so it will be good. Or that slight disappointment which comes next when it sounds largely like the last twenty years’ worth of albums overall, with just a few nuggets emerging in time. Trying to get to the essence, giving it a bit more time than I’ve given most of the albums in recent times. I didn’t have a blog then!
So, so… straight up, I’m saying it’s an 8/10. That’s very good. Definitely the best since “The Rising” and maybe as good as anything since…. I don’t know, “Born In The USA”? That was 1984. ”Tunnel Of Love”, 1987? I really think it is up there with those albums (a notch below the famous first six*).
The first thing to say is it is one of those albums which works as a whole. A coherent body of work, where the emotions ebb and flow, where there is light and shade, celebration and darkness. With all those classic Springsteen themes about the downtrodden man, the forlorn lover, the defiance, the passion, the redemption in ordinary things. It’s an album that continues Bruce’s journey into America’s musical roots, especially the folk music, which itself is a descendant of the folk music of Ireland, amongst others. When I listen to “American Land”, which is a bonus track on the iTunes version of the album, or “Death To My Hometown”, I can imagine Shane MacGowan of The Pogues singing the song, as the violins and tin whistles kick in. They are great, rousing tunes that resonate with my celtic soul. And “Death To My Hometown” sure is angry about those invisible forces that brought so many working people to their knees.
Anger, some times smouldering, sometimes in your face, sometimes despairing, sometimes defiant, runs like bubbling, spitting lava through “Wrecking Ball”.
The album starts with a bang. ”We Take Care Of Our Own” enters with a thunderous drum beat, roaring guitar and a classic Springsteen R&B piano that harks back to the days of “Jungleland” and “Badlands” and “Factory”. As well as a diatribe against against the uncaring society, I think it’s a celebration of the sound that made Bruce’s music so distinctive, with the late, great, Clarence Clemons at its heart.
The next two tracks, “Easy Money” and “Shackled and Drawn” delve into those American roots. “Shackled and Drawn” especially, is ready for the hoe-down. Bruce has only ever made one record that works in the discos – “Dancing In The Dark” – but on the country dance floor he has a whole repertoire, and “Shackled” is impossible not to tap a foot to, especially when that accordion buts in with its refrain. A joyous sound, juxtaposed against words of defeat, loss of hope and energy. That contrast creates a real tension through much of this album.
Two tracks form the centrepiece of the album, for me. The first is “Jack Of All Trades”. Set against one of those simple, rolling, soul ballad piano backgrounds (there is probably a technical term for it, but I don’t know about that stuff), Bruce sings tenderly about a simple man doing his best for his woman in hard times. Holding on to the everyday. There’s a breakout of that suppressed anger too – If I had me a gun, I’d find those bastards and I’d shoot them on sight – but mostly it’s about the personal defiance that is at the heart of so many of Springsteen’s greatest songs. So simple, so moving.
And the second is “Wrecking Ball”. I didn’t get this one at first. There was a lot going on and I wasn’t sure if it hung together. And then suddenly the wrecking ball refrain became the one in my head as I was in the Tube on the way to work. Sometimes a song takes a little while to reveal itself, for all the layers to peel away. For the structure to emerge. “Wrecking Ball” is like that, but now it feels like a Springsteen epic. It builds and builds and erupts in a chorus of brass at the end, matching the come-and-get-me thrust of the lyrics. It sounds like a song made for the end of a live set – for the exit in triumph.
“My Depression” and “You’ve Got It” are the deeply personal songs, the love songs, with a twist. The ills of the world are background, but the focus is one-to-one. “My Depression” is a plea for love and support in hard times which grows on me each time I listen to it. “You’ve Got It” is a simple piece of rock’n'roll, a bit of light relief in a densely orchestrated album.
I don’t know what to make of “Rocky Ground” really. It’s got a nice melody. But it feels like a song that has been designed for the Superbowl Final, with a bit of rapping from Michelle Moore, and the inevitable gospel choir. Dare I say, the sort of thing American TV seems to lap up. All the key US musical cultures coming together. We are the world. Just a little bit grating to these British ears. “Land Of Hope And Dreams”, a song that has been around for a while, is in a similiar, but more meandering vein. The gospel sound – not my favourite Springsteen style. I’d rather leave that to Aretha Franklin. But there is a searing sax solo from the Big Man, Clarence C, which reminds you what we’ll be missing from now on.
And then the album ends with “We Are Alive”. A certain irony as the lyrics sing of the souls of the dead and of abandonment; but against a rolling country beat, Bruce intones a simple message which sums up the album, and pretty much his musical history: the sound of defiance and hope emerging from loss and despair…
We are alive - And though our bodies lie down here in the dark – Our souls will carry the fire and light the spark – To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart…
So, yeah, buy this album. Give it a bit of time. There’s a great fire burning at the core of this album. It’s Bruce Springsteen at his heartfelt and rootsy best.
* The asterisk! The first six Springsteen albums are on a different level as far as I am concerned. I’ve grown to love the seventh – “Born In The USA” – over time, though I rather dismissed it as the yuppies-discover-Bruce when it came out, in 1984..
In case you don’t know them, here they are, the first six, the best music ever!
“Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ” (1973); “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” (1973); “Born To Run” (1975); “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (1978); “The River”(1980); “Nebraska”(1982). Every one essential, in different ways. I will come back to them in time.