Still The Boss
By Matt Jones
Maybe you’re a lifelong fan of Bruce Springsteen and/or the E Street Band. Or, maybe you’re not huge on Bruce. It’s possible you really like a lot of Springsteen songs but didn’t actually know they were Springsteen songs. Maybe, if you’re like me, you’ve heard Springsteen your whole life but nothing’s ever really connected for you. If you’ve been to a lot of Hillary Clinton rallies recently, you might have “The Rising” permanently engraved into your echoic memory.
Regardless of the unique little spot that Springsteen holds in your heart, it’s difficult to deny the extent of his incredible legacy. His is one that for all practical purposes began in the mid 1970s and is still just as relevant and powerful today as it probably was back then (okay, I’m 23, I wasn’t born yet). If Estelle is the “Fonzie of female rappers,” then Springsteen is the Derek Jeter of American songwriters — an ageless, impossibly reliable model of consistency. Please remove Jeter’s 2010 season from consideration for this analogy to work. Springsteen’s timeless value as an American songwriter and musician is paralleled by few others, and you would be remiss not to consider his name in the same realm as Cohen, Dylan, and Guthrie.
It’s the rare ability to effortlessly deliver relevant material without turning the formula on its head — just being able to adapt it to the times — that makes Springsteen one of the all-time greats. And it doesn’t hurt that Springsteen’s material caters strongly to American everymen either. Springsteen has always sung about America, for America, all while distancing himself from Toby Keith’s obnoxious jingoism that makes people hate us. John Mellencamp was pretty good at this too.
Overtly, Springsteen’s political attitudes have typically been the lens through which he writes songs, rather than explicitly the subject matter, and this is as true as ever with Wrecking Ball. This is a collection of emotional songs that express some clear frustrations with the state of our country now, but also some optimism that with some introspection and effort, we can return to our ideals. The pulse of the album is driven by a few themes — corporate greed and the resulting victimization of the working class, America as (ideally) a land of opportunity for all, and the need to have each others’ backs in hard times.
The album kicks off with its first single, “We Take Care Of Our Own,” whose message is clear and whose craftsmanship screams “classic Bruce”. From here, songs weave through different points of view, most commonly through the clenched jaw and fought-back tears of working Americans just trying to survive tough times (“Jack Of All Trades,” “Death To My Hometown,” “This Depression,” “Wrecking Ball”).
“Easy Money” features a catchy hook set to a stomp-and-handclap-driven beat that resurfaces throughout the album, and is sung from the point of view of the perpetrator rather than the victim. “Shackled And Drawn” injects John Denver into the recession, “Jack Of All Trades” slows things down to nice effect, and previously mentioned “Hometown” gives a wizened heartland-Americana perspective to Occupy-inspired anthems in ways that Third Eye Blind’s “If There Ever Was A Time” just couldn’t. Springsteen’s ability to infuse each song’s character with a poignant mixture of anger, bitterness, and/or sadness makes it easy to sympathize with all of them, and gives the album the breath of a chorus of voices crying out that We Can All Do Better. The powerful crescendo in the album’s title track reinforces the motivation of Bruce’s subjects to keep fighting; to stand strong in the destructive winds of the recession and fight for their lives and the lives of their families.
It’s a powerful album, and it ends with two bonus tracks including immigrant jaunt “American Land,” which is one extra notch of guitar distortion and a Dave King guest appearance away from being a Flogging Molly song. Don’t let the cheery tune deceive you, though – like most of the album, it accompanies highly critical subtext, and sometimes just text (“The hands that built the country / we’re always trying to keep out”).
The production is quite slick on Wrecking Ball and there are occasional electronic nuances you might not expect from a Bruce album, but overall it’s not a huge stylistic deviation; as with the lyrical content, the sound is simply adapted to the times, and the trademark Telecaster jangle hasn’t gone anywhere. Thematically, it might be a modern-day protest classic, but its reliance on relatable characters to carry its message keeps it from being expressly political. Springsteen is a great storyteller and Wrecking Ball is a great album about people who are fictional but also extremely real. It’s both an enjoyable surface listen and one that gets better with time; Bruce is still The Boss, and Wrecking Ball is another strong addition to his legacy.
(1) “We Take Care Of Our Own”
(2) “Easy Money”
(5) “Death To My Hometown”
(7) “Wrecking Ball”
(10) “Land Of Hope And Dreams”
(13) “American Land”