Wrecking Ball is Bruce Springsteen’s 17th studio album and the first to be recorded since the death of long-time E-Street Band saxophonist, Clarence Clemons. While it’s an album full of songs of loss and despair, it’s not an album that dwells on personal bereavement. Rather, the album laments a nation’s loss of economic stability and monetary misfortune; shining an angry light on the darkness that consumes not just the edge of town, but a country’s most influential decision-makers – those “fat cat” bankers – amidst their betrayal of working-class America. These are protest songs for the 21st century.
One of the more immediately striking aspects of Wrecking Ball, is the production. Brendan O’ Brien (who worked with Springsteen on the last three records) is replaced by Ron Aniello (who previously produced records for Ian Hunter, Barenaked Ladies and Lifehouse, as well as E-Street guitarist and Mrs. Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa). The change in personnel is a positive, and yields almost instant dividends. Over the course of three records, O’ Brien’s production had become predictable and staid – the wall-of-sound approach he’s known for becoming something akin to a mandate, cloying potentially strong songs and depriving albums of the room to writhe and breathe. In contrast, Aniello presides over an album that feels loose and adventurous, full of unexpected musical textures – from loops and electronic percussion, to funk guitar and even a rap(!) – and drawing influence from hip-hop to punk rock to Irish folk music to form a cohesive whole quite unlike anything else in Springsteen canon.
The album opens with lead single, “We Take Care Of Our Own”. It’s modern Springsteen-by-numbers – pounding drums, recurring guitar riffs, stirring strings, big choruses, glockenspiel – but while the pieces are all there, it never really clicks. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the song is the lyrical ambiguity. Like “Born In The USA” before it, its chorus (“Wherever this flag’s flown/We take care of our own”) hints at an untiring patriotism; while the verses reveal a resentment of what Springsteen’s homeland has become (“We yelled ‘help’ but the cavalry stayed home/There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown”). The song also introduces one of the record‘s more prominent recurring themes: downbeat lyrics juxtaposed with upbeat music. If you were to ignore the stories being told in these songs, it might be easy to mistake them for songs of celebration rather than despair.
The tracks that do echo their lyrical content musically, are among the weaker efforts on the album. “This Depression” boasts an amplified drum beat, angelic harmonies and a guitar solo that might have been lifted from the Top Gun theme, but fails to resonate. At six minutes long, “Jack Of All Trades” is a slog to sit through – a slow waltz with a piano motif that references The Righteous Brother’s “Unchained Melody” all too explicitly. When the song finally gets to what it’s been slowly building to for the five minutes prior, it’s with a note of resignation that what rings out is not the cathartic sax solo that would have occupied that space on any other Springsteen record, but a limp Tom Morello guitar solo as he dispenses with his best Brian May impression. It’s a Clemons-shaped void that no amount of distorted guitar can fill.
Thankfully, what’s left is unwaveringly good. “You’ve Got It” is the album’s only love song and could easily have been an outtake from the Born In The USA sessions with its Roy Orbison-esque chorus, handclap-injected verses and stadium-sized, slide-guitar-infused chorus. “Easy Money” meanwhile, fuses Celtic rhythms with electronic percussion on a song that recalls Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions project. “Death To My Hometown” and “Shackled And Drawn” make further use of that Seeger Sessions aesthetic – the former is triumphant Irish folk music that belies the tales of economic depression it unfurls, while the latter marries looped effects with acoustic, country guitar; piano; violin; and pulsing drums, culminating in a bizarre coda that features a female preacher preaching as Springsteen yelps enthusiastically in the background.
Moments like those at the close of “Shackled And Drawn” are pulled back from the brink of absurdity by the same unflinching earnestness that Springsteen has instilled in his music for the past 40 years. It’s the same earnestness that allowed a line like “I wanna die with you, Wendy/On the streets tonight/In an everlasting kiss (as in 1975‘s “Born To Run”) to be delivered not as some silly emo cliché, but as unhinged expressionism, like Kerouac with a bottle of wine in his belly. It’s the same earnestness that some 37 years later, lends credibility to Springsteen’s repeated declarations of being “a soldier travelling over rocky ground” (on “Rocky Ground“); that gives heft to lines like “Hard times come/Hard times go/And just to come again” (on “Wrecking Ball”). It’s also the same earnestness that allows the 62 year old Springsteen to get away with having a rap appear on his latest album.
“Rocky Ground” is the kind of song that just shouldn’t work – and yet it’s an unexpected highlight of Wrecking Ball’s particularly strong second half. Hip-hop beats lay inconspicuously under a bed of muted horns, warm organ, funk guitar and Clapton-esque blues licks as the song builds to Michelle Moore’s Springsteen-penned rap and the climactic, big gospel choir sing-along – it sounds like “Streets Of Philadelphia” as filtered through several decades of R&B and, confoundingly, it works.
Either side of “Rocky Ground” are title track, “Wrecking Ball” and longstanding live staple, “Land Of Hope And Dreams”, the latter finally being given the studio treatment. “Wrecking Ball” starts out as classic Springsteen before thriving into defiant punk rock that calls to mind Springsteen descendents, The Gaslight Anthem and Titus Andronicus. “Land Of Hope And Dreams” is an epic journey through Springsteen’s America, taking influence from gospel and country, rock and soul, and brought into the modern day with electronic percussion and heavy synths. Poignantly, both songs feature posthumous appearances by Clarence Clemons.
Wrecking Ball is an album that could have gone so horribly wrong. It’s an album that takes more chances than any Springsteen record since 1987’s Tunnel Of Love and thankfully, it fares much better than that album did. While it’s not likely to be mentioned in the same breath as Born To Run or Darkness On The Edge Of Town, it easily stands as Springsteen’s best since 2002’s The Rising.