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Album review: Bruce Springsteen's 'Wrecking Ball'

March 4, 2012 | 10:35 pm

Bruce Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball"

It's not necessarily a bad thing that “Wrecking Ball,” Bruce Springsteen's first studio album in three years, sees the 62-year-old artist updating his sound. 

He's done it before, though not with as much apparent intent as on studio album No. 17, which often seems like a direct response to the music of Canadian indie rockers Arcade Fire. After all, it's important for a boss to pay attention to the ideas of the upstarts in middle management from time to time. Inspiration often needs an external boost, and at some point an artist must acknowledge that the inheritors are now guiding the conversation.

But Springsteen doesn't always get it right on “Wrecking Ball,” a record that, more than anything he's done in a decade, sees him addressing Big Picture themes about America, war, the economy, provincialism and revolution. 

Whether he's channeling Montreal's finest, his own New Jersey heart, Southern gospel, Irish folk music, New York rap (yes, there's a 16-bar rap — very ill-advised — on “Rocky Ground”) or Southern twang, the Boss is pumped up and full of anthemic energy.

Produced by Ron Aniello (Jars of Clay, Barenaked Ladies, Candlebox), “Wrecking Ball” is a big record in every sense of the word: It's Springsteen with a large band and cruising on musical growth hormones, filled with muscle and bellowing out phrases loudly: “Shackled and drawn!” he sings on a song of the same name. “Death to my hometown!” goes another. On the title track, Springsteen, manifesting his Jersey roots, challenges anyone listening to “C'mon take your best shot / Let me see what you got / Bring on your wrecking ball.”

This is a change of pace. For the last decade, Springsteen — since his 2002 album with the E Street Band, “The Rising” — has been examining his gentler side: The first notes on his last album, the middling “Working on a Dream,” came via a string section, and throughout that record the Boss seemed content using his inside voice and a hefty helping of piano. 

“Magic,” from 2007, had some rockers, but they too felt designed for dining room listening in comparison to “Wrecking Ball.” The 2006 hootenanny that was “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” was a backyard campfire album.  “Wrecking Ball,” by contrast, sees Springsteen out in the virtual great wild, where screams resonate and nobody's gonna tell you to shut up.

Chances are this raised voice is the result of the election cycle. Bruce, though unwilling to take specific political sides (he alludes to right and wrong way more than he does right and left), refers to the state of America in nearly every song and understands more than anyone else that political music made in election years tends to reverberate louder. Romance is the furthest thing from his mind on “Wrecking Ball” — unless it's in service of some sort of grift, as on “Easy Money.”

That few are going to talk back to the Boss isn't always a good thing. After so much output, the songwriter has certain themes he falls back on, and a few of them here border on self-parody. “Jack of All Trades” is a Springsteen period piece about a blue-collar man and bankers who grow fat; “Easy Money” features yet another Springsteen woman in a red dress and relies on a “honey,” “money” “sunny” rhyme scheme that you can see coming from a mile a way. He rhymes “hat” with “cat.” 
The lyrical angle of “You Got It” sounds strikingly similar to Def Leppard's '80s hard-rock anthem “Armageddon It.” And Springsteen may owe Tom Waits a writing credit — or at least a rib-eye dinner — for “Shackled and Drawn,” which seems ripped from his more experimental peer's playbook.

All this adaptation isn't on the surface a bad thing; in fact, his citations are in the liner notes, naming five songs as inspiration, including funk vocalist Lyn Collins' James Brown-produced song “Me and My Baby Got a Good Thing Going,” Curtis Mayfield's “People Get Ready” and 1950s gospel field recordings directed by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. He employs the sound of an AK-47 firing, and even swipes a chunk of Johnny Cash's “Ring of Fire” for the album's closer, “We Are Alive.” But as evidenced by that song, he doesn't always pull it off. 

The propulsive energy of Arcade Fire, whose “Keep the Car Runnin'” Springsteen has covered live, drives much of “Wrecking Ball,” though. The band has long cited Springsteen as an influence, but the tables have turned: You can hear it in the violin sprint — and in Springsteen and wife/backing vocalist Patti Scialfa's call-and-response — on the title track. You can hear it in the bonus cut “American Land,” which also conjures the spirit of post-punk Irish band the Pogues. And you can hear it most obviously on “We Take Care of Our Own,” the first single.

Granted, no one creates in a vacuum, and all enduring artists have thematic obsessions: Walt Whitman addressed the same ideas and words over and over again in the course of his life, and with each turn he refined his own universal message for a new year and mind-frame. Woody Guthrie and Ma Rainey had ideas they repeatedly turned to over the course of their lives, and taken as a whole each of these artists by the end of their careers had created singular bodies of work.

Ditto Springsteen — though his days as an artist whose new work inspires young minds seem to be in the past. While you're likely to find youth citing “Darkness on the Edge of Town” or “Nebraska” as touchstones, it's far less likely that in two decades they'll be discussing “Wrecking Ball” that way. It'll be considered a late-period record that saw him in good, not great, voice.

Bruce Springsteen
"Wrecking Ball"
Columbia Records
Two-and-a-half stars

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-- Randall Roberts
@liledit

Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair), one star (poor). 

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