“Wrecking Ball is absolute confirmation that Springsteen is an artist for the big questions, the big moment. The biggest of all big game players…”
Bruce Springsteen | Wrecking Ball
There is an interesting moment in Wings for Wheels, the making-of documentary accompanying Bruce Springsteen’s seminal 1975 album Born To Run. It features its maker hunched over a pad of paper, furiously editing his lyrics prior to another larynx-shredding vocal take. The camera pans onto the sheets of paper to see a mess of ideas, dozens and dozens of which are crossed out, replaced with refined versions of themselves. They looked less like song lyrics and more like a finely tuned movie script. Every word, every nuance and every breath there for a reason.
If you’ve listened to any of his more recent albums, and there have been quite a few, it’s safe to say that, 37 years later, Springsteen no longer writes in this way. At the age of 62, you can’t blame him. So while much of his post-millennial E Street output has been painted with a broader brush, the intricacies replaced by sheer emotional weight, it hasn’t stopped him entering a genuine purple patch of form in which he’s released six albums in the last decade.
In the build-up to Wrecking Ball the buzzwords from both the man himself and his long-time manager Jon Landau has been that of “angry patriotism”, good news for an artist that thrives on having something to rally against. 1980’s The River told tales of a crippling economy,1984’s Born In The USA spoke out at the treatment of Vietnam veterans, while ‘87’s Tunnel of Love charted the disintegration of his first marriage. Anger has informed much of his recent work too, an anger that comes in many forms. Whether summoned whilst looking out over a post 9/11 New York on 2002’s The Rising – released as the dust settled and many Americans asked ‘what next?’ – or used to rally against the ineptitude of the Bush administration on 2007’s Magic. Not by coincidence then was his happy, optimistic, things-can-get-better Working On Dream, released at the time of Obama hysteria, an absolute turkey. With the political landscape at last looking cheerier, it was the sound of a writer with nothing of note to write about.
Thankfully though the banks went tits up and Springsteen’s blood pressure rose to levels that usually equate to musical gold. He wasn’t lying, Wrecking Ball is a very angry album. To an almost unrelenting degree. From the opening We Take Care Of Our Own, which replicates Born In The USA’s making the complete opposite point to the one you may think he’s making, via some choice song titles that include Shackled & Drawn, Death To My Hometown, This Depression, Rocky Ground and the blistering title track, anyone coming expecting a barrel of laughs or queens of the supermarket will be highly disappointed. Anyone expecting an album worthy of any moment in Springsteen’s long career will, however, be very satisfied.
Wrecking Ball, perhaps more than any Springsteen album to date blends the two versions of himself that he tends to keep apart: the pop-rock anthems of the E Steet Band and his darker, folkier, often solo albums. In both camps there are some absolute gems on show. Delve a little deeper and sprinkled throughout are a smattering of songs that are up there with his best. Of the folkier stuff, the beat-driven, Celtic march of Death To My Hometown is thrilling, and sees him waging war on those that have done the same to his country. “No cannonballs did fly no rifles cut us down, no bombs fell from the sky no blood soaked the ground,” he sings before you realise that this is not a war fought on the battlefield, but in the banks, with their economy-obliterating weapons of choice brining “death to our hometown boys.”
The shuffling workers-chorus of Shackled and Drawn shows off a frustration for the ready-to-work jack of all trades – “let a man work is that so wrong?” – who is instead “trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong”. In the following track, literally titled Jack Of All Trades, he goes even further still, with the titles character desperately searching for work - “I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain” – holding back his anger until he no longer can, admitting towards its climax that he wants nothing more than to “find the bastards and shoot them on sight.” Pretty clear then.
Of the more E Street material, the rollocking Easy Money sees Springsteen flex his oft-forgot melodic pop muscles – power after all, is nothing without its melody – and features a wonderful “na na na na” close. The exceptional title track is summery and flecked in nostalgic sunshine, building and building before letting rip into a barnstorming, toe-tapping, double-time crescendo. The real treat however comes in Land of Hopes And Dreams, a live favourite for years that has up until now not been tried in the studio. It’s the one moment here in which the writer allows himself to get optimistic, and it shines all the brighter for it, its widescreen shimmer bleeding into the final Clarence Clemons solo, recorded before his passing last year.
Wrecking Ball isn’t without fault. Two of its tracks, You’ve Got It and Rocky Ground – funnily enough the two on which he sounds least angry – sound out of place and pointless. Thankfully he has put them right next to each other so that a quick double-tap of skip will see you through.
What Wrecking Ball is however, is absolute confirmation that Springsteen is an artist for the big questions, the big moment. The biggest of all the big game players. Regardless of his age and regardless of his back catalogue Wrecking Ball should be celebrated. That it comes from a 62-year-old who has nothing left to prove makes it all the more fascinating. Broad brushstrokes yes, but it results in a near-masterpiece.