Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball Aims to Wreck But Just Pointlessly Rages
If there’s one thing that Bruce Springsteen knows, it’s passion. After over 30 years, 16 studio albums, and a 60th birthday, Springsteen’s every performance quakes with a genuine involvement in his music and his message that few artists can convey.
On his 17th album, Wrecking Ball, released by Columbia Records on March 6, Springsteen attempts to harness that verve by directing all of his dedication and anger at the fallout from the financial crisis. As usual, the Boss strives to document the current state of the American Dream, that favorite topic of his, in a distinctly “Springsteenian” way: good old American New Jersey rock. The result, however, is Springsteen’s weakest album since 1992’s Human Touch.
So, why? Why does Wrecking Ball fall so flat? It doesn’t seem like it should. It deals with a topic that, thematically, seems perfect for Springsteen. So perfect, in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me that God caused the financial crisis simply so that he could hear an awesome Bruce Springsteen song about it (although I really hope that’s not the case because it really didn’t pan out, Big Guy).
Even with all that going for it, Wrecking Ball just doesn’t work. It’s packed with energy, yes. It’s anthemic; it’s driven; it’s angry. But where Springsteen’s other albums about the loss of the American Dream can feel so incisive and transcendent, representative of the fusion of the political and the personal with Springsteen’s trademark combination of aggressive rock and intimately poetic lyrics, Wrecking Ball feels blunt and so irremediably stuck in the moment that it’s hard to really get into—except in a pissed off, need-to-rage way.
It doesn’t help that the songs paint the issue in stark, black-and-white terms. The second track, “Easy Money,” describes men out of work who rob a bank because, what the hell, Wall Street robbed them. On “Jack of all Trades,” Springsteen swears to shoot the “bastards” of Wall Street on sight. It’s not that this sort of blue-blooded rage is ineffective—“Born in the U.S.A” is filled with it. But in those songs, the characters seem more fleshed out; the conflict seems more real and multi-dimensional. Here, I feel like Springsteen just doesn’t get it. If he’s speaking for the average man, does he think the average man is all rage? That’s not the Springsteen I know.
There are certainly some good moments on the album. There is “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” a live version of which was originally released along with The Rising. That was an incredible album which does everything this one does not: seize on the fury of a vulnerable nation and both temper and indulge it, which makes it the most compassionate piece of art to come out of 9/11 I can remember. This song contains the gorgeous lyrics that have always kept me connected to Springsteen, as well as one of the late Clarence Clemons’ best solos (which did make me tear up).
The title track, “Wrecking Ball,” was another highlight. It was originally written about the destruction of Giants Stadium, a symbol of America that went up around the same time as Springsteen, and is aggressive and enlivening in the way that the opener “We Take Care of Our Own” —which at times feels like a geography lesson—fails to be. However, this song was performed before the album came out. It’s a little bit frustrating that Springsteen kind of repurposed these songs for Wrecking Ball, and it’s a tad depressing that the two best songs on the album are the two that weren’t actually written for it.
On the whole, Wrecking Ball is clunky and lackluster. The lyrics rarely have outstanding bite or beauty, and the production feels awkwardly glossy for an album whose existence rests on the idea of small-town anger. I was so excited to see Springsteen seize on the opportunity to slip back into the voice that I remember from Born in the U.S.A., Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and Born to Run—the broken, angry, hopeless, and enlightened young man, who is racing to fulfill what he sees as his American destiny while it slowly dies in his hands. Instead, I got an angry old timer, righteously pissed off at a country gone to shit and determined to rock out against it, whether or not he’s actually adding to the conversation. I want Springsteen, not Gingrich.