Album Review: Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
Indisputably one of the finest songwriters of all time, Bruce Springsteen is also perhaps the greatest live performer of the last fifty years and almost certainly the very best that mainstream rock music has ever had to offer.
All this said, it would be hard for even the staunchest fan to convicingly argue that The Boss has actually written a truly iconic, near-perfect standalone song since 'Streets of Philadelphia' in 1994. More to the point, it’s tough to say he’s released a notably great collection of songs since maybe '87's Tunnel of Love LP - or, at the risk of being harsh, '82's Nebraska opus (a record that remains his high-water mark for many). Sure, there have been some unquestionably great songs since, but many of these were unearthed from the singer's more distant past on '98's exhaustive rarities box set, Tracks. By contrast, his albums of new material throughout the last three decades – be they with or without The E Street Band – have by and large stuck to a ratio of approx. 2/3 filler: 1/3 kinda killer.
Despite emerging in the shadow of Clarence Clemons' tragic passing, and for all its being touted as a "furious" response to the global financial crisis, Wrecking Ball sadly amounts to the latest in a long line of mild disappointments. As before, the songs suffer on the most superficial level from profoundly poor production: in recent times all the edges of Springsteen’s rock 'n' roll machine have been smoothed off by Brendan O’Brien, who arguably should know better; this time around the culprit is Ron Aniello, who appears to know nothing.
Aniello seems to be under the impression he’s somehow revolutionising The Boss's sound by adding processed beats and sporadic samples, while Springsteen and his PR machine appear to think they're putting out a hardcore punk record that rails against the system in the style of Crass or Minor Threat. As it stands, what we have is a(nother) set of middling, middle-aged songs infected by the influence of Celtic traditional and Latin styles that – a few passable exceptions aside – come across more mildly irked than revolutionary.
That’s not to say it’s all bad: in the first half there is promise at least in rousing opener 'We Take Care of Our Own'. Unfortunately, however, that promise is of a ballsy rock album to follow, and a bright start quickly turns into a false dawn. 'Easy Money' is delivered with a commendably cheeky grin (despite on the surface amounting to a fiddle-led piece of anti-capitalist folk), while 'Shackled and Drawn' is an impactful little trad stomper that allows lyrics as corny as "Working man rolls the dice / Working man pays the bills" to sit happily alongside lines as direct and evocative as "We’re walking through the dark in a world gone wrong", before reverting to what regrettably appears to be the disc's default setting: Seeger Sessions-style jig.
The jig/hoedown motif reappears on 'Death to My Hometown', while we get an unwelcome dose of Christian preaching on the lamentable 'Rocky Ground' - a song that features both sampling and an actual rap (mercifully delivered by Michelle Moore, as opposed to the man himself), thus singling itself out as a profound lowlight.
The anger we’ve read so much about does briefly rise to the surface on the otherwise inconsequential 'Jack of All Trades' – with the impassioned line "If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot them on sight" aimed squarely at the city fat cats of this world – as well as on the album's inspirational, anthemic, genuinely rousing title track. The latter also offers practically the only instance here of Springteen wielding a guitar that actually sounds like it’s being played instead of produced; heatedly heartfelt lines like "Let’s see your best shot / Bring on your wrecking ball" are juxtaposed with more considered, poetic couplets ("All our youth and beauty has been given to the dust… All our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots") to wonderful effect.
Wrecking Ball's finest moment, though, comes in the form of latter-day live favourite 'Land of Hope and Dreams', a fantastic, open-armed ode to inclusion and love as only Springsteen can deliver. It comfortably sits head and shoulders above everything else here - even Aniello's faux-edgy production can’t dull its many qualities.
As with all recent Boss records, the whole thing does eventually grow on you: the guy still knows his way around a catchy tune, after all, and his voice remains a thing of transforming, hypnotic, raw wonder. As you slowly get used to what it is, rather than hoping for something other, you’ll find yourself simply growing comfortable with it. For an album of purported rage and anger, however, gradual grudging acceptance is not exactly what you’d wish for.
Springsteen, then: still a master of live performance, still one of the few big-hitting mainstream artists willing to speak his mind through song, and still a figure to be unreservedly admired for his contribution to rock 'n' roll. Just not, it appears, someone who's about to make a great album any time soon. Unless, of course, he fancies giving Steve Albini a call...