2012 seems like the perfect year for a Bruce Springsteen album.
No, really. Everyone’s watching their wallets a little closer, worrying a little more, keeping an eye on the news longer, watching politicians sharper…the market for “times is hard” homespun Americana rock has probably never been bigger in recent memory. And The Boss had an unpredictably successful 00’s; after a universally agreed upon 90’s dirge of creativity came The Rising in 2002, which might as well be the Official 9/11 Response Record. Even if they weren’t out of the park, follow-ups Magic and Working on a Dream worked in tandem with odds n’ ends albums Devils & Dust and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions kept Springsteen strong.
Right down to the title, Wrecking Ball is a record defined through toughness. Touting Wrecking Ball in promotion as Springsteen’s “angriest” album is smart marketing, but not always true, or apparent. Don’t get me wrong, a glance at a list of song titles (“This Depression”, “Shackled and Drawn”) or a lyric sheet reveal that Bruce throws around some harsh and heavy words, but the music lifts most songs out of misery. Opener “We Take Care of Our Own” has a folk music message, but stadium size drums, guitar, and string flourishes, not to mention a rally-cry chorus. If it isn’t angry, it certainly doesn’t lack for passion.
It’s a passion shown throughout most of Wrecking Ball in a similar folk-meets-stadium format. Most of these songs are built on a sturdy foundation of stomping, steady drums and lively acoustic guitar strumming. Springsteen/co-producer Ron Aniello spice up the meat & potatoes instrumentation of the album with one of the biggest ensembles I’ve seen this side of Neon Bible-era Arcade Fire: banjo, organ, keyboards, strings, mandolins, horns, and a choir all join the record’s communal cry at some point or another.
And Wrecking Ball feels extremely communal. Even when he’s painting a picture of an individual, such as on “Jack of All Trades”, Springsteen still drops in plenty of “We”s, and “Land of Hope and Dreams” suggests that there’s a place where we can all breathe easy, no matter if we’re “saints and sinners”. Closer “We Are Alive” stretches even harder for triumph through community: the song’s a constant builder as Bruce paints a picture where the just spirits of the past rise up, and live on to inspire us now (corny on paper, but executed pretty well).
Outside a song or two, Wrecking Ball follows a pretty compartmentalized emotional progression. It starts with fairly punchy, harder hitting songs like “We Take Care of Our Own”, “Easy Money”, and “Shackled and Drawn”, where the swagger is strong, the gang vocals are confident, and the fists are in the air. “Jack of All Trades” and especially “This Depression” intertwine with ruckus numbers to introduce the album’s cooler middle, before cranking the the epic up to 11 for closing pair “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “We Are Alive”.
It’s hard to turn down the best of the rockers (“Wrecking Ball” whips itself up into a particular frenzy), but the album lives and dies depending on how you take the slower moments. As lyrically sharp as it is, “Jack of All Trades” pushes its luck at 6 minutes long, and seven minutes of sheer optimism in “Land of Hopes and Dreams” towards the end of the album is hard to justify. But even those songs have their moments; The Boss gets saved by guest appearances by Tom Morello and the late Clarence Clemons (who saves “Land of Hopes and Dreams” with his solo). Meanwhile, “Rocky Ground”, The Experimental One With Programmed Drums and a Rap Verse, is a passable experiment, even if a little sleepy. “This Depression”, though, is an absolute keeper that gives heart to a record that threatens to be consumed by righteousness (it makes a great stop-gap between “Death to My Hometown” and “Wrecking Ball”).
At the end of the day, Wrecking Ball‘s blend of anthemic rock, folk, traditional, gospel, and (once) hip-hop feels both exhilarating and exhausting. At peaks, it’s one of the stronger moments of 2012 thus far, and at lows, it sinks under its own weight. The “angrier” moments resonate more, as Springsteen is able to command righteousness better than cloying at hope, but even through cynicism, you kinda believe the guy because he believes it. Three and a half stars.