Today sees the release of Bruce Springsteen's newest album, the compact and confounding Wrecking Ball, his first since 2009's Working On a Dream. Recorded and inspired partly by the recent Occupy protests, with most songs coming before the movement was even a physical thing, in any other year it could be a readymade hit.
Is Wrecking Ball a grand treatise on the Great Recession and the fabric and resolve of America in 2012? No, for everyone who just now tuned in, this is all just standard Springsteen operating procedure. I keep reading in other reviews about some sort of fire and grit that these other listeners keep hearing through the album's 11 tracks, but I hear that maybe once or twice.
He's definitely been soaking in the vibes from bands like the Arcade Fire, Gaslight Anthem, Against Me! and the like, who have taken his template into the 21st century, injecting a youthful bite to this album.
I haven't heard him ticking off influences from stuff around him in some time. And not an album too soon. For some Dream was a minor nightmare, and the album before that, Magic (2007) was only halfway there. Which is why Ball should work, right? Let's all think warm thoughts.
I am lifelong, excitable Bruce Springsteen fan, and this album didn't really latch onto me until I took a long airplane flight and let time and the thin air in the cabin coax me into two repeated spins.
Now that I am not 38,000 feet in the air, I am not so sure what I saw in Ball, other than the prospect of spending three hours above America with a new Bruce album.
This isn't a return to form, as some are calling it. It's staying at the same altitude, with some spare turbulence, and only a few spots where it rises above the clouds and lets the sunshine in.
It's not his "best in years," unless you consider every Bruce album to be his "best". So yes, it's his "best" by that logic. Or then there is the people that say Ball is a sign that "Bruce is back!" but where has he been? This music is not a grand departure.
Early on, this album was supposed to be an embittered screed against corporations and greed, the people who made the Great Recession possible, and a soundtrack to a digital Dust Bowl or something to that effect. It was sold to us months back as Bruce's "chances" album. Sure he takes one or two chances on Ball, adding an Irish lilt to "Death To My Hometown," or a gospel chorus to "Shackled And Drawn."
So let's break the disc down piece by piece. Think warm thoughts.
"We Take Care Of Our Own": Classic Bruce, and you can hear in the bridge where Clarence Clemons would've chimed in and made it go nuclear. As a first single, this made me fawn over the idea of Ball. On release day, and after weeks into the album, I love it even more for different reasons.
"Easy Money": Is this the same couple from Nebraska's "Atlantic City" just a few decades removed, out for one last crime crawl now that the kids are grown and the grand-kids are away at college?
"Shackled And Drawn": Gospel chorus at the end, from the Victorious Gospel Choir, doesn't save this one from coming off as the schmaltz king of the year. Am I the only one in America who isn't moved by a gospel chorus in a song? To me it comes off as a cheeky reach when rockers do it. At worst, a KFC commercial.
"Jack of All Trades":Bruce takes on unemployment on this one, one of the few bright spots on Ball, even if the subject matter is goddamned depressing. Of course the out of work protagonist has only his hands to work with now, as a corporation has taken away his position. After six minutes with this morose character you just call him whiny. He wishes to "shoot" the bastards, in true Bruce fashion, who took away his job. Of course.
"Death To My Hometown": "Damn dude, you should have just given this demo to Flogging Molly. That sounds like an awful knee-jerk reaction to this, but I have never understood why the man hasn't joined forces for real with younger bands on some new music, instead of just doing random guest spots during live shows.
"This Depression": I look to Bruce's catalog to lift me up most days - sometimes Nebraska notwithstanding - but this one is more a downer than an uplifter. Not sure if he is talking about actual clinical depression and longing for the shoulder and ear of a lover, or if he is again, attempting to echo the "voice" of the country. If I think of it as a love song, then I melt.
"Wrecking Ball": My personal favorite on the album as of right now, and hopefully this stands as my lasting impression of Ball. This one will give me goosebumps in a live setting, mixed in next to a cut say from The Rising.
It's about the old departed Giants Stadium, but knowing Bruce, it could just as well be about the next 50 years of U.S. history. Make no mistake, this is more than likely the best song on Ball. It's hard to find another one on the disc that matches the lump-in-your-throat of its nearly six minutes. Naturally, this is one of two tracks that Clemons got to lay his hands on before he passed away last year. The magic is prevalent.
"You've Got It": Reaching back to the pop-slink of Born In The U.S.A., with echoes of "Cover Me" throughout. My guess is that this will be the song which sees Bruce straddling a mike stand to the delight of the assembled female audience.
"Rocky Ground": Was this the cut with the hip-hop influence I was supposed to be watching for? Oh brother, there's that gospel chorus, the soul sample, the French horns, and the messianic lyrics about blood on your hands. I guess.
"Land Of Hope And Dreams": A good closer to the main set before heading into the encore, I presume. Aural ground that Ryan Adams treaded on with 2001's Gold, or at worst Coldplay in 2009, is Bruce on auto-pilot in 2012.
"We Are Alive": I would've liked this one more if he kept himself solo on this one and not added the hillbilly guitars and the whistling. Shit, you can't beat Bruce alone with a guitar and a bone to pick. But even still, "We Are Alive" makes me sort of forget the bad songs on Ball, but maybe that's because the Arcade Fire influence, or mirrored influence as it may be, sort of makes my ears all aflutter.
All in all, Ball isn't atrocious or awful, but it does sound like a a bridge to something else that isn't Ball or even the Bruce that we have known for now almost 40 years, which makes up for its share of shortcomings.
I do wish that the headspace of shadowy bonus track "Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale)" would be stretched into a whole album somewhere down the line. Pinocchio it ain't. Gothic Bruce may have legs.
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The other bonus cut, "American Land," should have been given to a younger band. Share the wealth, Mr. Springsteen, and lose that Irish accent.