Acoustic and electric guitars, live drums and drum machines, banjos and mandolins, violins and fiddles, rock and R&B, spirituals and gospel, Celtic rhythms and Irish jigs, choirs and choruses, samples and a rap (not by The Boss-Thank God), hushed vocals and loud exaltations, hope and despair, resilience and pride, the American Dream and Nightmare: all of these sounds, genres, and cultural cross samplings of American music combine, sometimes gloriously and sometimes not, to comprise Bruce Springsteen’s most populist album to date, both musically and thematically. Despite the highly slick production, which is a poor step in the wrong direction after Brendan O’Brien’s (Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam) stint with The Boss throughout the ‘00s, Wrecking Ball, with all of its mashed up diversity and, again, occasional stumbles is strangely Bruce Springsteen’s most consistent album since the jewel in the crown of the O’Brien years’ The Rising.
With Wrecking Ball America’s rock poet laureate eschews the stripped down and live sounding approach he brought to The Rising, Magic, Devils and Dust, and Working on A Dream (and that O’Brien’s production brought to The Boss’ sound) for the complicated and overdubbed sound that current producer Ron Aniello, and Springsteen himself (he’s credited with production as well) felt was more representative of this album’s need to incorporate the multifaceted sounds of the above listed genres and instrumentation effectively enough to mirror in Wrecking Ball’s sound the metaphorical populist theme that Springsteen employs in his lyrics. This album tries hard, and at times too hard, to sound like a cross section of American music, anchored by The Boss’ rasp, yelp, and guitar, and nearly all of American music’s diverse sound shows up again and again throughout the album. This is an album about the people, for the people, and by the people.
Springsteen has always employed populist themes in his music, but with Wrecking Ball he takes his love of, empathy for, and belief in the common men and women of all walks of American life to new heights. It’s no surprise that Tom Morello, quite the populist himself, makes prominent guest appearances on two tracks, “Jack of All Trades” and “This Depression.” Thematically, Morello and his former group Rage Against the Machine have much more in common with Springteen’s populist leanings that one might at first realize. Morello and RATM did cover “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a song that many at the time didn’t realize or know was a Springsteen song. Morello himself has morphed into a protest folkie in a way himself with his acoustic outings and The Nightwatchman. His collaboration with Springsteen seems a no-brainer and its surprising it hasn’t happened before now and his soloing on “Jack of All Trades” and atmospherics on “This Depression” show just how far the former member of RATM and Audioslave has come as a master of varied guitar playing genres.
On “Jack of All Trades,” the album’s slow song standout, Springsteen demonstrates that he still has the powerful ability to empathize with a cross section of the American populace that he’s been out of touch with economically for decades. The hopeful, yet tentative, reassurance that “We’ll be alright honey,” a sentiment that Springsteen communicates with his hushed vocals, is truly touching. Maybe I’m personally affected by this song because, as a child, I witnessed my father, a victim of the overseas shipping of labor that occurred during the Regan years, perform the odd jobs like the cleaning of drains, mowing of lawns, and the “pull(ing) (of) that engine apart and patch(ing) her up ‘til she’s runnin’ right” to make ends meet during the lean times while assuring my mom that “we’ll be alright.” Springsteen goes further though with his closing remarks that “If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight,” veering into Morello and RATM similar rage without ever consummating the desire while giving a cathartic voice to the unemployed victims of the “fat cats.”
Not every song as powerfully communicates the desperation and hope that songs like “Jack of All Trades” does. “We Are Alive” and “Easy Money” both of which are well crafted and performed songs border on triteness with their lazy lyrics and rhymes. Other songs like “Death to My Hometown” and “Rocky Ground,” despite its earnest but flawed attempt to incorporate a short rap, soar emotionally and sonically. “Shackled and Drawn” another foot stomping and rockin’ ditty about the sweaty difference between the bankers and laborers stands out as well as a strangely feel good song with some dark overtones.
I was really worried that the new love stirred in me for Bruce Springsteen’s music would fade and wither once he decided to move on and work with producers other than O’Brien. O’Brien’s work is close to my heart and only he and his close second favorite of mine, Rick Rubin, have brought the music of some of the greatest bands and performers to brilliant life. I’m happy to say that Wrecking Ball, while not as strong as Springsteen’s magnum opus The Rising, is a wonderful musical step in another direction that stays true to The Boss’ sound while expanding it into interesting new territory. At 62, I don’t know how much more gas in the tank Springsteen has, but I hope its enough for a few more musical miles, and albums.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Bosses