Take Yer Best Shot – Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball”

As with most things Springsteen, much hype surrounded the release of Wrecking Ball, the 17th studio album from The Boss.  Much of the hype seemed to be centered on how different this album was going to sound from his previous work.  Truth is, I’ve heard that before.  And, like before, I am delightfully surprised to find out that the album still sounds like Springsteen.  Make no mistake, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer has grown in many great ways over his almost 40 year recording career.  But he almost always sounds unmistakably like Bruce Springsteen.

Let me be clear; this is not a bad thing.  In fact, it is a great thing.

Springsteen’s greatest gift is his ability to connect emotionally to people in their struggle and hurt.  He is able to meet people in their place of darkness and infuse that place with a light of hope.  This, in a nutshell, is Wrecking Ball.

For me, the album plays out like a two-part story.  It begins with the introduction, “We Take Care of Our Own”, a song that asks whether or not we do still take care of our own, and have we dangerously limited the definition of who is “our own”.  Also, this sounds like classic Springsteen, coming from the same musical vein as “Badlands”.

After the intro, the music shifts.  This is a folk album in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, only with more amplification and better production value.  The songs begin to tell a story of people who are growing short on hope.  They are struggling through a life of broken dreams and promises while our country struggles through a broken economy.  Springsteen sings of people feeling imprisoned by an inability to find work (“Shackled and Drawn”), people fed up with the “fat cats” continuing to get rich up “on banker’s hill” and deciding to, illegally, take matters into their own hands (“Easy Money”).  In the album highlight “Death To My Hometown” (a battle march that sounds like it could be a Dropkick Murphy’s song, if played double-time, of course), there is a call to take action against a seemingly invisible enemy that has “destroyed our families, factories, and they took our homes”.  And the call is not to rise up in violence, but to find a common song and “sing it hard and sing it well, send the robber barons straight to hell”.  This is angry stuff, even if it feels so uplifting to sing.

Another first half highlight is “Jack of All Trades”, a beautiful waltz sung from the perspective of a struggling handy-man trying to reassure his wife that they will weather the storm currently flooding over them.  His words “There’s a new world coming, I can see the light.  I’m a Jack of all trades, honey we’ll be all right” seem focused on bringing calm and peace to his family.  But he follows this up with the dark inner confession “So you use what you’ve got and you learn to make do.  You take the old, you make it new.  If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight.  I’m a Jack of all trades, honey, we’ll be all right”.  This guy is barely hanging on.  Who is there to help him?  Do we truly take care of our own?

At the albums midway point is the incredibly poignant ballad “This Depression”.  It feels like an emotional turning point and segue from the first part of the album’s narrative to the second.  I love this song and am a little crushed to see Springsteen is not giving it any attention on the current tour.  The guy in this song is as low as he has ever been.  His faith has been completely shaken down.  He is confessing his depression to his love, asking in his brokeness for his baby’s heart.  It’s all he has left.  It’s the culmination of all the darkness presented in the previous songs, leading to a moment of apparent hopelessness.  Yet, despite this absolute low, the guy in this song manages to find, somewhere in his lowly darkness, a sliver of light that just might change things.

“I haven’t always been strong, but never felt so weak.  All of my prayers gone for nothing.  I’ve been without love, but never forsaken”.

But then….

“Now the morning sun, the morning sun is breaking”.

And with that simple observation, the drums kick back in and his pleas for the heart of his lover are spoken with new urgency, suggesting that is no longer a request born of all that’s left,  but rather one of hope for what still could be.  Seriously, I love this song.  As I talk about it now, I think this may be my favorite song on the album.  It’s a reminder that, in times of darkness, chasing the sun isn’t the best solution.  Sometimes you need to turn and walk into the darkness, trusting that sunrise will come again.

From here, the tone of the album seems to shift from darkness to light, in an almost overtly spiritual way.  The title track is a classic “give me all you’ve got, but I won’t break” kind of song (and will be a classic E Street Band rave-up in concert, complete with big horns and “Whoa-oh-0h” sing-a-longs).

“You’ve Got It” sounds like a honky-tonk testament to the power and mystery of love (admittedly, this is the weakest song on the album for me.  Almost feels like a throw-a-way).

“Rocky Ground” is straight up Gospel, complete with choirs and references to shepherds and angels and Jesus and floods.  It’s an acknowledgement of the difficulty of the journey so far, but there is the renewed hope of a new day comin’, and the unmistakable sense that this journey is being made with a community of shared faith in that hope.  The desperate loneliness of “Jack of All Trades” and “This Depression” have started to fade away.  And while I’m still not sure how I feel about Michelle Moore’s rap, this song still feels vital.

“Land of Hope and Dreams”, a song that has been around in concert for a little over ten years, gets its first studio treatment.  To Bruce’s credit, he doesn’t just try to reproduce the muscle of the live E Street version, but reinterprets the song to fit in the context of this album.  And he does so beautifully.  This has always been Springsteen’s most apparently spiritual song, but he ups the heavenly ante with this production and arrangement, giving more attention to the gospel elements and also emphasizing its obvious nod to the classic Curtis Mayfield spiritual “People Get Ready”.  It is beautiful and triumphant.  And the Clarence Clemons sax solo is a beautiful way for the long time E Streeter to be commemorated on this album.

The album closes with “We Are Alive”, a tribute to the souls who have passed on ahead of us “to carry the fire and light the spark to fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart”.  It sounds like a Johnny Cash song, even without the borrowed “Ring of Fire” horns.  It’s a reminder to keep alive what they died for.  To keep fighting for what we believe is great about this country.  And, to make sure we are taking care of our own.  All of our own, not just the one’s we are comfortable choosing.

At the age of 62, Springsteen continues to make music that is relevant and vital.  His current tour features most of the songs on this album.  He could easily rely on just playing “the hits”, but he still has something to say.  And he is going to say it.  And his fans trust him and love him for it.  This is a great album.  He has earned the right to just mail it in at this point of his career.  But it is for the reasons that he earned that right that he will likely never do that.  He still seems bent on trying to make the greatest album in the world.  This isn’t that.  It is likely not going to convert young music fans the way some of his work in the past decade has.  You are not going to hear this music on the radio along side Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.  But this is a GREAT album and should absolutely be heard.

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~ by themattmorrisshow on March 27, 2012.

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