You might wonder, for good reason, why we are writing about Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball five months after its release. Some of the reasons have been personal. But there are better reasons why we’re speaking up now, and speaking in the way that we are. Part of it is that we both like to listen slow, and listen frequently. Too much music writing now seems hasty and undigested, and that takes a toll. (Deadline perceptions are fine if there’s nothing important in the details, vastly inadequate if there is.) More important was our desire to hold off until we’d heard a larger dialogue: Just what would the world make of this record and what would we have to add to that conversation? But that dialogue has been slow in coming. Most of what was written and said about the album missed the overriding sense we have that this record speaks directly to the Arundathi Roy/Grace Lee Boggs maxim: “A new world is possible. A new world is coming. A new world is already here.”
Because we listen both as long-term Springsteen fans and as activists, that’s what we heard here from early on. It’s a big part of what makes Wrecking Ball something different, especially in the way these songs interact with the dialogue about the movements for social change currently taking shape in our society. This album doesn’t sound like anything else he has done, and its call stands apart, both musically and lyrically. It calls for us not only to react, emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually, but also to act, to not just stand but fight “shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart,” the last words sung on the record.
Such a call requires—demands—a response in kind: detailed, direct and the result of lots of interplay between our own ideas and those of others. So we’ve taken our time and as much space as we needed to use. We hope this is part of a beginning.
Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball opens with an alarm, with air raid sirens blaring and tribal drums kicking. The singer, recognizing the enormity of what he’s dealing with, begins in quiet caution. He knocks on the palace door; he desperately seeks a map to bring him home; he stumbles over once-kind neighbors turned callous to his suffering and their own. Like the man in “Rank Stranger,” the Stanley Brothers song that influences so many rock dystopias, the singer can’t believe the devastation he’s seeing, not in the streets but in the faces, the gestures, the way people are standing and moving: “Where’s the eyes, the eyes with the will to see…Where’s the work that will set my hands, my soul free…Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” There’s one thing he needs to make sure of: He chants it obsessively, as if himself amazed that he still fully believes it, even against all this evidence that it can’t be true: “We take care of our own, we take care of our own / Wherever this flag’s flown, we take care of our own.”
Trying to figure out how to realize that promise occupies the bulk of this album, the most complete narrative work Bruce Springsteen has created since the trilogy that runs from Born to Run to Darkness on the Edge of Town to The River (1975-1980). At the end of the first two albums in that series, we found his central character left wounded and stranded, on a hilltop above those who’d given up, with no choice but to come back down into the valley of mundane reality where he has remained ever since. But now that mundane world itself has become tinged with fantasy, swept up in a phantasmagoria of all-against-all: Marauders, carrion eaters and blank-faced rank strangers who, though some have intentions every bit as noble as those of “Promised Land” and “Born to Run,” find the game impossibly rigged. Those “different people” who came down here to “see things in different ways” have indeed swept all away before them. It’s a haunted place now, beset by vultures and wrecking balls. Even with their bones picked over, it seems the dead may have better advice to offer than the living.
Determined to pull out of this world without options, Springsteen begins by deploying some of his old tools: Layer upon layer of guitar against swelling keyboard, driving percussion, exuberant backing vocals and lush strings. We’ve known this guy for decades, and part of what we know is that, at his core, he’s just as desperate as Wrecking Ball’s first track makes him appear. But he’s not nearly so bereft of new ideas as our first reaction to desperation implies. He has, as he so often does, the other possible reaction to desperation, the one that generates alternatives rather than merely succumbing to realities–the ace in the hole called hope. He also has new collaborators, who helped him find loops, samples, an array of new instruments—many of them antique—and most startling, new beats as well. The surprise is the dawning realization, as he moves remorselessly through a dozen songs describing this grotesque landscape and its denizens, that Bruce still believes that if we look hard enough we’ll discover that we too have just as much reason for hope as for despair—and at least as many devices for realizing that hope, too. Particularly the hope that, if not America, at least Americans can remember what life is supposed to be all about, and then … well, then, act like they believe it, mainly. And beyond that, can get to the hard work of change, not as rank strangers but “shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”
In the world Springsteen invented for himself (and us) forty years ago, hope was an abundant commodity—hope came cheap. Today, hope’s so much harder to discover that most of the time it seems practically beyond price. Nevertheless it’s the indispensable key to solving the fundamental question posed by Wrecking Ball: Can a society that’s torn apart “from the shotgun shack to the Superdome” function on its most basic levels? Should it? Will it? It’s all too obvious (to everyone but the willfully blind) that we no longer take care of more than a few. But how do we admit it to ourselves and begin again?
Springsteen literally prayed for some force—human or supernatural, maybe both—to provide him with this answer a decade ago, in “My City of Ruins.” Now, he’s telling us what he thinks. He’s singing not just about changing the dialogue but altering the way we behave. That is, he wants to begin—he wants all of us to begin–confronting our own weaknesses and illusions. Springsteen presses a point he’s made since he first called out and it’s fundamental to dismantling those lies we tell ourselves: “Nobody wins unless everybody wins”—taking care of me and taking care of you can’t be separate options. They have to become part of one process.
Like any great musician—and this album marks him as one, not just a great songwriter or supposed poet—Springsteen’s process begins with listening, hearing what’s around him and what’s within him. James Baldwin said it: “[T]he man who creates music…is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.” On Wrecking Ball, Bruce creates from what he hears a catalogue of what he calls his own: a cross section of American voices and sounds that connect to various pieces of himself. And that first song’s emergent voice, proclaiming the necessity of our commonality in order to retain our ability to rave on as individuals, is an almost predictable piece of what makes Bruce Springsteen who he is.
But with his very next step, the tone turns darker. “Easy Money” bursts forth with bombastic percussion accompanied by handclaps. Springsteen sings with an all-but-indecent braggadocio and a twinkle in his eye—veteran fans may recognize the kid who tossed the bus driver a quarter and told him to keep the change. Seemingly mundane preliminaries (getting dressed, taking care of the pets) give way to busting the town wide open. It sounds like this guy’s out for nothing more or better than kicks. And then he states the grim facts as he knows them, and he knows them well: “There’s nothing to it, mister, it won’t make a sound /when your whole world comes tumbling down.” He notices that “all the fat cats… just think it’s funny,” and he’s made a choice. If he has to be a fool, he’s not going to be their fool. The music evokes gangster charisma, a recklessness as infectious as it is cynical. The soaring shout and hoot and holler of his vocal, the steel guitar, fiddle and exuberant backing voices travel alongside it, taking hold before the point emerges clearly: “Easy Money” tramples the line between an ordinary fool headed for destruction and a rock and roller bound for glory. It’s anything but a plan to confront Springsteen’s own illusions, much less the illusions of the larger audience. Such a way out isn’t even on offer. Yet the song does possess a seemingly unsinkable spirit. Such swagger can make holding tight to one’s illusions seem like enough, but the way it works out, generally only the fat cats are still smiling at the end. This might well be the character in “Ramrod,” except the guy in “Ramrod” wasn’t looking to kill anybody. That’s how much or how little the world has changed.
“Shackled and Drawn,” a work song through and through (like “Night,” “Factory,” and “Youngstown,” among numerous others before it), begins with a spry guitar figure over pounding percussion. This one’s about awakening to a realization that if wages aren’t quite exactly slavery, they certainly leave the worker “trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong.” It rejects the 9mm nihilism of “Easy Money” but the only replacement offered is a primitive “Badlands” slugged out on an anvil. When the lyric asks, “What’s a poor boy to do but keep singing his song?” he’s obviously asking a personal question—but also an ethical question and, in a collapsing economy, a practical one. It’s certainly the only way this artist knows to move closer to taking care of his (and ostensibly our) artistic concerns while “up on Banker’s Hill, the party’s going strong.” He hangs onto that last word so that it all but evokes the rhyme “wrong” before returning to the chain gang: “down here below, we’re shackled and drawn.” But the moment of ignition comes when a female preacher’s voice calls out, “I want everyone to stand up and be counted tonight,” and Springsteen shouts back, relieved to find that somebody is alive out there.
The narrator of “Jack of All Trades” could be any of the guys we’ve met so far. But he could also be any of a hundred other characters Springsteen has created, from the little kid with his feet rooted in the earth and his head in the stars in “Growin” Up” to the father who drives with his son on his lap in “My Hometown” and returns to walk through the town square, wondering when it all really went to hell in “Long Walk Home,” or the man in “Counting on A Miracle,” hearing a new heartbeat as he lays against his wife in their sleeping bag and tries to figure out how he’s going to take care of yet another life. “Jack” is sung in the voice of a man whose best moments have been left behind, down by the river or in the aisles of a supermarket or in the dust of Iraq….or maybe there are pieces of him scattered in all those places, and many more. (Any Springsteen fan could give you a list three times this long and twice as specific.) But there’s a reason he can speak so frankly, as he sits with his hands around a cold coffee cup, leaning across the kitchen table, looking straight into the eyes of the person he loves most and telling the biggest lie of them all: “Honey we’ll be all right.”
The music uses the chords of “When the Saints Go Marching In” (in Curt Hamm’s trumpet solo, it simply is ‘Saints”), and they bear what that song always carries, a vision of the certain finality of death so unquestionable that all arguing must cease. Which doesn’t mean the details don’t matter—the way he sings “the banker man goes fat,” so that it threatens to resonate as “fair” is the best example. He sounds weary on that line, like he’s almost sighing, and the fairness is understood to be that of yet another rigged game. It just means the truth is what it is, a pitiless pathway to the grave. If you take it seriously enough, you’re likely to want to take someone else with you—and if you go one step beyond that, you wind up in the coda, a Tom Morello guitar solo so remorseful it beggars any language but its own sounds. And the violin that follows that hums the same tune, albeit maybe another verse. Maybe the one that talks about “when the moon grows red with blood.”
The tragedy of Springsteen’s career may be summarized in the reaction of many of his veteran American fans to the appearance of this epic song in concert: They get up and head for the toilets and the concession stalls. It’s not that they don’t get it. They won’t get it. (In the European shows, the song is accompanied by a stillness and silence so deep it carries a jolt.) And so, as Springsteen says for the first but not the last time on this album, “it’s happened before and it’ll happen again.” Now’s the time for your tears.
The shimmering starlight emanating from the final note of “Jack of All Trades” opens the door to the full blown fight song that follows. “Death to My Hometown” begins in Celtic delirium, pounding drums offset by handclaps, penny whistle, a touch of banjo. Vocals enter, but they’re chanting transcendental Pentecostal incoherencies. There’s a hint of cannon fire. But the clearest noise of all, perhaps unintentionally not buried in the mix (or maybe situated there with perfect calculation, like a Motown tambourine), comes almost three minutes into the song. It’s a gun being cocked—and like the good student of Chekovian drama he is, having now mentioned the option of the gun in three out of five songs, Springsteen makes sure this one goes off, though you’ll have to listen up to hear it (That this is buried in the mix cannot be accidental.)
Do we know the character Springsteen portrays here? He’s not the guy standing by the roadside, kicking a dead dog—although they might be related. He’s not the maniacal nihilist who calls himself Johnny 99. He’s maybe more like the guy in “The Big Muddy” who believes “You start on higher ground but end up somehow crawlin’.” Except this guy refuses to crawl—that’s what that shotgun’s for, a way of keeping him on his own two feet. It’s how he takes care of his own.
This infuriated Irish-American damns his enemies, gives them names (“marauders,” “vultures,” “greedy thieves”), declares in sputtering rage that the greatest of the injustices is that they “walk the streets as free men now.” But what sort of justice would he have them face ? The gun goes off but without repercussion…and when he has the
bastards most clearly in his sights (and this guy’s vision is a lot clearer than Jack’s), he suggests that something else is what might work: “Now get yourself a song to sing / And sing it ‘till you’re done / Sing it hard and sing it well / Send the robber barons straight to hell.”
It’s a rock’n’roll answer. But it’s also something else: It’s straight out of the beloved community that produced the most effective American social change of Springsteen’s lifetime: the Civil Rights Movement. For this ever-moral (and moralizing) artist, the song is always mightier than the shotgun. Hold that thought.
Hold it tight against what comes next.
“This Depression” sounds not nearly so much depressed as desperate, and not the desperation of the outlaw who’s crossed some invisible line, more that of a man who’s being slowly tangled by the lines of hip hop beats, ethereal keyboard washes, floating wordless backing vocals and more Tom Morello guitar, which tools through this soundscape of isolated misery as if it’s on a lonely Jersey Girl’s journey between stars…although this certainly isn’t the lights of the sun, let alone where the fun is. More likely, it’s a roughly spackled ceiling dropping paint chips onto her Sistine Chapel dreams.
The nakedness of the song’s self disclosure marks it as utterly contemporary. The voice stripped of bravado, or even energy to face the struggles ahead, suggests the dead ends and bad dreams of “The Promise” and (more so) “State Trooper,” where the singer declares “the only thing that I got’s been botherin’ me my whole life.” But whether “This Depression” refers to the character’s personal clinical depression or an international economic depression, or more likely both, it’s absolutely not a way out. In fact, it’s not even a coherent response to the threat we’ve just been hearing about. He keeps declaring, to some unspecified “baby,” “I need your heart,” although the musical heart of the song, its pulsation, stumbles around like it might give out (or give up). And you have to wonder if he might be staring into a mirror. Until you see that if that’s so, it’s because we all are.
In the midst of a vinyl revival, one thing you’d imagine would be mentioned more often is that Bruce Springsteen is approximately the last artist whose records almost always divide as if Side One and Side Two were pertinent digital terms. On Wrecking Ball the turn from “This Depression” to the title track clearly marks the story’s emergence as a struggle toward light, after six songs cursing the darkness.
That light doesn’t exactly pour in. These lyrics are the ultimate mixture of the personal and the political on an album where that particular combo is the daily special. Although the song’s metaphor depends on the planned demolition of Giants Stadium in the Jersey Meadowlands after the Springsteen run of shows there in 2009, even back then it wasn’t “about” the disappearance of a major concert venue or even a quasi-historical site. Bruce first sang it on September 30, 2009—one week to the day after his sixtieth birthday, annus horribilis for any rock star. It was also a year since Springsteen traveled the campaign trail with Barack Obama, and ten months since Obama’s Administration had begun squandering whatever chance there may have been that the vultures of Wall Street would no longer walk the streets as free men.
It’s a funny song, but the humor’s anything but light. For every “mosquitoes grow big as aero-planes” and jangly guitar lick there’s “when all our victories and glories have turned into parking lots,” a mordant summation of both the man and the building’s career highlights. We are urged to raise up our glasses to those who have fallen (“because tonight all the dead are here”), but we are much more surprisingly and unsentimentally instructed that the way out of the mess is to “hold tight to your anger and don’t fall to your fears.” That’s not the advice of a nice guy from the backstreets. It sounds more like the admonition of a seasoned barroom brawler.
More than that, we’re told that even after the game is decided and the wrecking ball is heading straight for a sock in our eye, we have to hold tight and not fall because “hard times come and hard times go / and hard times come and hard times go / and hard times come and hard times go / and hard times come and hard times go / and hard times go” and then, his voice coming down on the words like his strings on a power chord, “Yeah, just to come again.” This is a man who’s sick of laughing in the face of defeat after defeat. This is a guy who won and then watched the victory turn particularly sour. This is a guy who’s not sure anybody within earshot (give or take the band) is on his side and isn’t letting that stop him.
This is the tragic hero, finally learning the fundamental lesson that repeating the same mistakes over and over again is worse than insanity. Springsteen here is like Bo Diddley, condemned to endless repetition and delighting in it, too. Condemned to learn the lesson and to spit in the lesson’s eye. Condemned to act crazy and finding in that the greatest delight of all.
It’s not that the endless cycle of hard times doesn’t matter. It’s that it matters so much—and so does what so many have learned about the unsettling ways in which what matters presents itself, opportunities as well as obstacles. At the end of the song, with the whole band in full swing and a wordless chorus pressing relentlessly forward, what you’re hearing is precisely a group admitting its own (very mortal) limits in order to risk whatever it takes for hard times to come again no more.
The record’s musical turning point hinges on not only tearing down walls but reaching through the rubble for helping hands to rebuild. “Wrecking Ball” itself shifts the focus of the horn arrangement from Clarence Clemons’ tenor sax to Curt Ramm’s trumpet, but that’s a product of inevitability. Producer Ron Aniello is new, as are almost all the engineers and mixers. And though this is a rock album, there’s hardly a track where the E Street Band appears intact. Instead, dozens of different musicians and singers appear, from so many different genres that many songs defy classification. The lyrics suggest that junking the whole works might be worth the risk, but he’s not just saying it—the idea is made more plausible because it emerges from greater musical risks than Bruce usually allows himself.
Suitably then, the first song after this cataclysmic anthem is a reach of the hand. “You’ve Got It” begins as a wooing, with only voice over acoustic guitar. Electric guitar, piano and steel guitar turn the second verse into a country-flavored seduction, celebrating that thing the loved one has that makes her like no one else. Once the singer observes, “You can’t read it in a book/You can’t even dream it,” the full weight of the album’s sound kicks in with bluesy guitar and soulful horns. By the end, it’s apparent this song’s about the creative heart of the album—that individual human spark that makes us fall in love, yes, and that same spark that binds us together and lends us surprising strength in numbers—like the massive band second lining onward into the unknown beyond the fadeout. A thing so elusive and so fundamental that it’s hardly any wonder that the first time Bruce played it live, he explained it in terms of the Higgs boson.
Springsteen’s writing has edged toward outright gospel since the turn of the century. “Rocky Ground” is the payoff—one of his most musically dramatic and emotionally lavish productions ever. The opening samples a Pentecostal preacher proclaiming, in a voice that sounds remarkably like Bruce’s own, “I’m a soldier!” over and again. The gospel choir that follows—the Victorious Gospel choir of Asbury Park, N.J. with which Springsteen’s worked before—caresses what will become the song’s chorus: “We’ve been travelin’ over rocky ground, rocky ground.” The bed is a synth echoing “Streets of Philadelphia,” before a particularly liquid guitar riff sets the stage for Springsteen’s hoarse recitation of the verse. He begins where he left off in his other gospel choir song, “My City of Ruins” from The Rising, exhorting, albeit with quiet sadness, his flock to “rise up,” a term never more saturated in political and religious conflict. He shows which side he’s on immediately, invoking the expulsion of the money-changers from the Temple, as well as the prospect of (perhaps divine?) retribution, in death and in life. But the second time through, “Sun’s in the heavens and a new day is rising.”
When Springsteen finishes, Michelle Moore steps out of the choir and delivers a rap. It’s written for an impoverished woman, a mother, but she could be that “Wrecking Ball” character (“You pray that hard times, hard times come no more”). Her prayer is simple: “That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest.” Still, in a sleepless night, faith curdles to doubt and “only silence meets your prayers / The morning breaks, you awake, there’s no one there.”
“There’s a new day comin’” the song declares but the voice sounds like Bruce Springsteen, not God. And as Michelle Moore’s voice fades out, repeating the title phrase, what’s left is more than a moment of doubt. The song is an answer to the challenge posed in “We Take Care of Our Own”: If the cavalry stayed at home, what now? The stark answer is that all that’s left is us.
And as the choir opens the next to last song, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” recasting a staple of Springsteen’s live shows since the E Street Band reunion in 1999, that’s right where the answer stays. This rendition is that much more intense, edgier, louder—even Little Steven’s mandolin has some added urgency—because that choir is present to connect Springsteen’s Woody Guthrie elements to those he took from Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, a secular cross between “This Train is Bound for Glory” and “People Get Ready.” What this means is that the weary traveler finds love even as the material losses multiply. But it’s not God she meets in that field where sunlight streams. It’s just that ordinary guy, the same one we’ve known since “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road,” “a good companion for this part of the ride.” Surrounded this time by (and seemingly at one with) whores, gamblers, thieves, lost souls and just plain sinners alongside the saints and winners, the journey remains just as important as its destination.
The pledges of religions and governments are one thing. The bond between individual humans is what always seems truly sacred in Springsteen music, and it has to be carried out, step by painful step. Forgiveness is possible—hell, forgiveness abounds—but the price is as high as it’s meant to be. Those bells that ring might be the bells from the courthouse in “Long Walk Home,” because their promise is defined exactly the same way. They are “bells of freedom ringin’.” And if, as Springsteen has long contended, the real issue in his songs is whether love is real, then the only qualification might be “in this life.” It’s heartbreakingly real here, heartbreaking because that is one long, long ride. But it can’t start unless we get on board.
However religious he may be, Bruce Springsteen for sure believes that, each and every night, all the dead should be with us. It’s one of the joys of this record that Clarence Clemons makes his final appearance on “Land of Hope and Dreams,” in the heart of one of the band’s greatest songs, in a performance that actually tops the live one.
But the Big Man, like Phantom Dan before him, is gone and he’s not coming back any more than your good manufacturing job is. The question isn’t whether that’s true—only a politician would pretend we don’t know that answer—the question is what we are going to do about it. To really set off on the trip to the Lands of Hope and Dreams, we need to find ways to accept who we really are, to fight off the vultures and the marauders, to rise up so we can hear those bells of freedom ring.
To Springsteen, the dead still have a role to play—just as they do in “Wrecking Ball,” they reappear in the finale, “We Are Alive,” a mocking, dead-serious merger of Johnny Cash, mariachi, Morricone soundtrack music and a little of that old devil dust.
A bass note from what sounds like scratchy vinyl opens “We Are Alive,” then folky guitar and some truly outré whistling. (The whistling could also be termed “ghostly” and given that the E Street Band’s onstage whistler was Clarence, maybe that’s a better way to put it.) But then the mariachi horns arrive, and a bass and drum figure out of “Ring of Fire.” The singer starts looking up at Calvary hill, but he’s immediately distracted by “a graveyard kid” lurking among the dead, listening to corpses tell their stories. The singer kneels and places his ear to the headstones, so he can hear them too. The first three are a dead railroad striker, a little girl killed in a civil rights era bombing, and a border crosser who expired in the Southwestern desert as he attempted to reach the U.S. It’s not much of a reach to connect the gamblers, workers, jacks of all trades, fighters and athletes—each, like all of us, systematically isolated.
But not only are these dead not content to be silent, they’re not even content to watch us forever screw up. They are about to issue marching orders, not in order to evoke the old days but to ensure that we have the best possible new ones. “We are alive!” they exult. “And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark / Our spirits rise / To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”
The singer dreams himself dead—carried under to confront the worms and the dark and the loneliness. Then the voices appear again to remind him: “We are alive…our souls and spirits rise / To carry the fire and light the spark / To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”
Call it a rock’n’roll version of magic realism, if you wish, but you still won’t have nailed the biggest, most significant change Bruce Springsteen has wrought in his work—and perhaps therefore himself—with Wrecking Ball. The man with the amazing ability to remain a mere moralist while traveling on Presidential campaigns has finally discovered his politics. And so he’s willing to strongly suggest what we might do if we would like to rid ourselves of the vultures and thieves who pillage our lives. Even if he does put his ideas in the mouths of the dead.
Maybe that’s as it should be, the musician listening to the voices he’s gathered and relaying what they say. Those ideas he hears are living things, never more vital than at these moments when we all feel out of options. What matters most is not that the speakers are the dead (or even that the dead aren’t in the most important sense gone), but that we are alive—right here, right now. All of us: the Jack of All Trades, the punk in search of Easy Money, the ones who’ve got it and the victims of the death of their hometowns, the ones starving on rocky ground or discovering that the lack of a job shackles them as much as the drudgery of a job ever did. Not to mention those sure the train holds no place for them. Wrecking Ball leaves no one untouched, unmarred or at the very least unchanged. But the people out there in the dark, listening, aren’t buried. They’re still moving and the future lies in the ways in which they move—together and apart, bonded and isolated, terrified and overjoyed, in hope and in despair–as they always have moved when hard times come and come again. Wrecking Ball dares to put all of them together on that train to the certain nowhere that is our only blessed future and then, it does the unimaginable: It tries to start a conversation. In its own way, armed with not much more than a song to sing and a belief that if we travel over this rocky ground together there is a promised land at the other end, it aims to change the world.
Whether it succeeds in changing it, of course, isn’t up to Bruce Springsteen. It’s up to those who hear his call. It’s up to the ones who are alive out there. It’s up to us.
Many thanks to Daniel Wolff and Craig Werner.