Bruce Springsteen’s new album “Wrecking Ball” comes out Tuesday.
Thanks to the The New York Times’s pop critics Jon Pareles and Jon Caramanica discuss Bruce Springsteen’s album “Wrecking Ball,” to be released Tuesday by Columbia.
JON PARELES Jon, if good intentions were all that mattered, Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” would be a shoo-in for album of the year — which is, not coincidentally, an election year. “Wrecking Ball” is Springsteen’s latest manifesto in support of the workingman, and his direct blast at fat cats and banksters who derailed the economy. It’s sincere, ambitious and angry, which can lead to mixed outcomes. It also — which may be a surprise on an album billed as a broadside — holds some of Springsteen’s most elaborate studio concoctions since “Born to Run.”
The album has been growing on me with each play; it starts out heavy-handed, but by the end it moves from duty to pleasure. Springsteen definitely picked the right title song. “Wrecking Ball,” written from the first-person point of view of the old Giants Stadium, turns a conceit into a homily into a hoot. But he was less strategic making “We Take Care of Our Own” the first single. In my imagination he was watching that Republican debate when someone in the audience cheered the idea of letting the uninsured die, and his sense of duty kicked in; he thought he should write a song that insists compassion is patriotic. It’s a trademark E Street Band sound, from the chord changes to the glockenspiel to the backup vocals, and it feels awkward and hectoring. I don’t think, as you wrote after the Grammys, that it’s “jingoistic,” only that it tries to associate flag-waving nationalism with shared responsibility. But there’s much better stuff on the album.
JON CARAMANICA But, Jon, I too was born in the U.S.A., a country with a Constitution that guarantees the freedom of interpretation! We can talk about the intention of the author all day long — and certainly Bruce’s boomer army will do just that — but the text is far more ambiguous, and in plenty of places on this album, just outright flat.
I agree, it’s energizing to hear the type of ambitious arrangements that he’d largely abandoned when he retreated into rural bard mode. And the chill of hearing the booming sax solo on “Land of Hope and Dreams” drove me to the liner notes to confirm that, yes, it was Clarence Clemons. And “We Take Care of Our Own,” my lyrical bête noire, has the hardest-working music on the album.
But that energy is in service of deeply nebulous ideas. Even if I accept that Bruce is moving in the Pete Seeger tradition, there’s no ambiguity in Seeger’s vision, political or aesthetic. Bruce keeps it loose, though. Strip out the couple of post-Katrina references in that song, and what’s left is a tirade about locating American identity outside of government authority, a nationalism that supersedes even something petty like democracy.
It reminded me of Nashville ideologues like Trace Adkins and the slightly slipperier Toby Keith. Maybe Bruce can write some material for their new albums.
But no, fans will say: He takes on the big-money guys all over this album (though not the ones that financed and built Giants Stadium), but those lyrics feel more crudely drawn than 1970s Saturday morning cartoon villains. More showing, less telling.
PARELES What do you want from him, a tax plan? That points to the problem that only Springsteen has (give or take Neil Young). He’s the superstar who is supposed to be impeccably pure of heart and commerce, absolutely serious in his roles as the tribune of the working man and the voice of the (crumbling) American dream but still a full-tilt rock ’n’ roll entertainer.
So he’s in trouble if he gets too serious, in trouble if he leaves a loophole in a lyric, in trouble if he’s too bleak or didactic, in trouble if all he wants to do is think about girls in their summer clothes (though he’s actually thinking about mortality and loneliness).
Yet Springsteen has willingly and self-consciously shouldered that role, and has done it far differently from Pete Seeger, the folkie who proudly distrusts commercial pop. Springsteen is doing it as someone who wants to make fully produced recordings and get them heard on the radio, who sells out arenas and is not just populist but still genuinely popular. Face it — Lady Gaga doesn’t want to be Pete Seeger.
On “Wrecking Ball” he’s trying to stake out a God-and-country liberalism, a gospel of hard, sweaty work and earned income, while venting direct fury at vulture capitalists. He also comes out pro-immigrant, openly romantic (Kenny Chesney could have a hit with “You’ve Got It”) and reverent to the point of direct Bible allusions.
Where agitprop folkies would be doing this rhetorical heavy lifting over a righteously austere acoustic guitar, Springsteen only starts there. The music lifts this album out of its hard-times gloom, and charges off all over the place: roots Americana, electric guitars, synthesizers, orchestra. He’s barking “Death to My Hometown” flanked by Celtic pennywhistle over sampled Sacred Harp gospel singers (via Alan Lomax). When he sings about visiting a graveyard and remembering the dead in “We Are Alive,” what bubbles up but the country-mariachi bounce of “Ring of Fire”? It’s not all sodden earnestness.
Mr. Springsteen performing at the Grammy Awards last month.
CARAMANICA I would like the title of the next Springsteen album to be his effective tax rate. And some liner notes about the Buffett Rule, maybe.
But when he does get specific on this album, it’s disorienting. If you believe “We Are Alive,” then striking 1877 Maryland railroad workers rest alongside Birmingham civil rights agitators and also next to Mexican border crossers. One cause at a time, please. And when Springsteen intones, “I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain” in “Jack of All Trades,” the sodden workingman empathy literally made me nauseous.
You say that Springsteen gets in trouble if all he thinks about are those evanescent summer girls, and maybe that’s true, but one of the high points on this album for me is “You’ve Got It.” It’s Bruce at his prime sexiness, that heavy-breathing oratory of his aimed away from the laborers and the overlords and squarely at a tender young thing. “You’ve got it in your bones and blood/You’re real as real ever was,” he says, the hot air leaving a damp coat of lust on his target’s ear. He sounds predatory, lecherous, spent. It’s bracing.
That’s the Springsteen I find most provocative, the one who balances sensuality with dogma, who understands the body as a locus of pleasure, not just labor. When the music is joyous on this album, it does what his words and voice often cannot: generates goodwill. Let’s not talk about that Sam Cooke nod at the top of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” though.
PARELES You’ve definitely zeroed in on some of the weak spots. Yes, “Jack of All Trades” verges on self-parody. And the geographical and political spread in “We Are Alive” is startling — though with Calvary Hill in sight, I don’t think that’s supposed to be some particular graveyard in Jersey, and by the time the banjo comes plinking in, I don’t really care.
One odd thing Springsteen does on this album is to all but set aside one of his major skills: storytelling through a single character or two. Giants Stadium and the guy in “You’ve Got It” end up being the album’s most three-dimensional characters.
It’s as if Springsteen assigned himself to merge Woody Guthrie and gospel, all archetypes and declarations. Which means the lyric booklet isn’t the place to start. If you read “Shackled and Drawn” or “Rocky Ground,” you think they’re going to be a chore. But “Shackled and Drawn” genuinely shakes its fist and howls, while “Rocky Ground” — even with an unnecessary rap shoehorned in — ends up redemptive.
There’s been a lot of triumphal, fanfaring rock and hip-hop around. Just for a change it’s encouraging to hear a big sound that’s linked not to individual aggrandizement or indulgence, but to something more unselfish.
CARAMANICA And yet this possibly unselfish or maybe even generous album, and artist, inspires so much self-righteousness. I’d say take me back to “Nebraska,” but I fear the only thing worse than late-Bruce boosterism is early-Bruce nostalgia.
You’re totally right about the lack of characters here. He’s losing definition in his voice, but in ways that are less interesting than Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Tom Waits. He’s picking obvious targets, painting them with wide brushes, then taking cannon shots that can’t miss.
But here’s the thing: The idea that there’s only one sort of Bruce listener is outmoded, a vestige of leftist ideological privilege. My feeling is that since “The Rising,” his skepticism and grand-scale empathy have ceded some space to make room for hubris, smugness and chest thumping, and that’s made room for all sorts of readings, all types of embraces.
I agree with you about “Shackled and Drawn.” It feels like a genuine modern-day blues. But that line near the end gets me: “It’s still fat and easy up on Banker’s Hill/Up on Banker’s Hill, the party’s going strong.” I bet they’re listening to Bruce.
PARELES In the end I don’t think we’re all that far apart on this album. Though I like it better than “Magic” or “Working on a Dream,” I’m not touting it up there alongside his first seven albums — seven albums! — or “The Rising.” We’ve picked at its flaws and missteps; it’s got plenty of ups and downs.
But smugness? Hubris? I don’t hear that. It’s not as if Springsteen has been some pampered, out-of-touch rock star who was totaling up his sponsorship deals when he noticed Occupy Wall Street on his giant flat-screen TV last year. This has been his main mission at least since “Born to Run”: Think about America, especially its embattled working class, and sympathize, analyze, console, commemorate, compress, speak up, give everyone a rousing chorus.
Springsteen has been listening to arenas singing along for three decades. It’s an act of will for him to still search for musical and verbal nuance while staying terse, to not be condescending or demagogic, to say what he considers important, knowing how loud it’s going to be. Sure, he’s firing a cannon this time. At least he’s firing it in the right direction.