Crossing Rocky Ground: Looking Deeper Into Bruce’s “Wrecking Ball”

Almost two months have passed since the release of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball, which means that the ‘event’ of the album is well behind us. All the major reviews have been written, the brief media discussion of the record’s merits and faults has been superseded by some other topic, and Wrecking Ball’s chart history has been established. Like most albums by rock artists of Springsteen’s age and stature, Wrecking Ball shot to number one, and quickly tumbled away, resting this week (the Billboard chart for May 5) at 31, surely bolstered by his current tour more than any airplay.

And we’ve had the chance to see Bruce, and a now-monstrous version of the E Street Band, present the new songs, first in a short series of TV appearances, then across the opening leg of a lengthy tour.

As fast as things move today, when you stop to actually listen carefully to Wrecking Ball, or to cobble an opinion of it (both of which I am doing now), you can find yourself looking back at it – it already feels very familiar. Two months of a new Bruce record, particularly an exceptional one, are usually filled with many replays, conversations about it, and at least one live show. And I got mine under the belt already: A great three-hour Cleveland concert that leaned hard on the new songs, but also showed off the freshly augmented band, on catalog showstoppers like “E Street Shuffle”, “Trapped”, and “Light Of Day”.

And with all that digested, I can now see Wrecking Ball standing next to the other standard-bearers of Springsteen’s canon, like The River, Nebraska, and the greatest of them all, Darkness On The Edge Of Town. And that was a point I did not expect to reach when the first of Wrecking Ball’s songs were offered up in the weeks preceding the album’s release, introduced sadly by Internet and not by radio (hearing new songs by a great artist as a surprise, introduced by a rabid DJ beats getting a link in your e-mailbox anytime).

Springsteen fans have a perspective of him that comes most often from their first Bruce kick, whether it was those who saw him barnstorm east coast clubs in the days before Born To Run, or those converted by Darkness, or the masses who came under his watch in 1984, when the other “Born” album ruled both radio and MTV, or even the second generation of Springsteen fans who were ushered to E Street reunion shows in ’99 and ’00 by parents and older brothers. Each of those groups, and others, have something specific they want – A particular sound or a lyrical feel that will bring them back to that place where they were first injected with Bruce Juice. I don’t think this is nostalgia. I think everyone innately searches for new sources of the adrenalin they once felt, no matter the source. Wanting to feel engaged and energized by a source once terribly strong is not a sign of someone living in the past. Rather, I think it’s part of our clockwork. For many, Springsteen music is a part of their regular cycle of happiness, even for those who are not devoted five-shows-every-tour Bruceheads.

So when an album comes along with a warning label, we have a tendency to push back from the table at first. Wrecking Ball, before it hit the stores – whatever that means now – was said to be ‘experimental’, ‘radical’, and ‘diverse’. I don’t think that scared Bruce fans as much as it bummed them out a little. Since Springsteen came back to a full schedule of activity about 12 years back, he’s offered up a slew of releases and tours. It’s been sort of a new golden era for Bruce buyers. But among the new records in that run, you will not find what so many Bruce followers really want: A return to the true E Street Band sound. That big-but-lean, loud-but-clean attack forged on Born To Run, perfected on Darkness, and exploited on The River. The Holy Trinity of Bruce records, for my generation of fans these were the albums and tours that sucked the air right out of our lungs. It’s true what they say: They go in threes. Just like celebrity deaths, the greatest rock artists of the album era usually cement their legacies with a run of at least three killers in a row. Bringing It All Back Home led to Highway 61 Revisited and then to Blonde On Blonde, and you could easily name a dozen more trilogies of similar impact. When the strongest rock writers and performers make a run like that, they establish an audience that believes in them forever. Even if they never quite hit the nail again, that audience believes the heavyweights can do it again, and at least knows that the artist has the goods to give them the adrenalin rush again when they drop the dime on another ticket.

Springsteen’s output from ’75 to ’80 put him in that class. Following that has come a wild ride of all kinds of records: Acoustic and painfully bare bones efforts, slick synthesizer give-ins, LA session-man workouts, Celtic folk revivals, 21st century ‘thick rock’ pep rallies, and Brian Wilson tributes. None of them ever brought back the E Street sound and force of ’78. Many thought Bruce and the band were coming back to that point with The Rising and Magic, and some even said those albums were the definition of E Street power. They were wrong. Fine records with some towering songs, sure, but Brendan O’Brien’s brick-wall production made them both feel dense and somewhat fatiguing. Thrills were often shallowed by a pushy waveform common in most albums of the last ten years. Distinctions between instruments were blurred, and, as in 1984, and again in the early 90s, we found ourselves with Springsteen records that sounded like other people.

Long-time fans, me included, kept hoping that a true E Street Band album would still emerge, one with all the live-in-the-studio sinew of the classic two-guitar, two-keyboard, sax and drums rocket ride that could still be found in E Street shows. After the meticulous Phil Spectorisms of Working On A Dream, it seemed that Bruce might bring things full circle at last.

Instead, Wrecking Ball was touted ahead of release as an amalgam of all he has done with a band in the last decade, mixing The Sessions Band with E Street musicians and some players who have come to be identified with Bruce over the last few years, particularly guitar-wringer Tom Morello.

For me, that didn’t bode well. People talk these days of a rock and roll rebirth, and there is one, with knockout garage bands all over the place. But it’s a hardening of a niche, not a resurgence at the most public level. Rock artists are cuurently defined by most people as lunkhead acts like Nickelback (when will these clowns go away?) or fashion models like Train. You and I know better, of course. So when a real master, someone you know can make a rock AND ROLL record, doesn’t choose to grab that option by the throat when it seems we need it most, it’s discouraging.

And even worse, Wrecking Ball seemed to be arriving as a half-assed effort. Of the 13 tracks announced for the record (if you shelled out for the ‘deluxe’ version – another pain-in-the-ass compromise to the creeps that run record labels), two, including the title track, had already been issued in other forms, and another was a staple of Springsteen encores. At first glance, it appeared that the most prolific writer this side of Elvis Costello couldn’t deliver more than 10 new songs and had resorted to padding.

When the songs started appearing, one-by-one in a marketing strategy designed to make you ‘tune’ to a new webpage everyday, first hearings left me cold. “We Take Care Of Our Own” didn’t strike me at first as anything extraordinary. It presents Bruce as the character he sometimes seems at live shows, a preacher who seems able to create a new cliché about our group condition every other Sunday. Immediately there was talk of the song being misunderstood, misappropriated, and jingoized the way “Born In The USA” was so many years back. But that really didn’t happen… Bruce is not as much a part of the everyday as he was then, and our 14-minute news cycle found something more controversial to yap about before the sun went down. “Take Care” also seemed to be a rather predictable extrapolation of the big, post-2000 Springsteen stage sound, with a somewhat-too-grand hook that needed no guitars. And, like “Radio Nowhere”, the lead-off from Magic, it wore thin quickly, particularly to those who caught Springsteen every time he passed through town – The riff was a little too obvious, akin to the kind of “na-na-na” codas Bruce attaches to many songs.

The following tracks, “Easy Money”, “Shackled And Drawn”, “Death To My Hometown” and the rest, mostly seemed to be musically obvious, relying on fiddles and accordions and other sounds Bruce became comfortable with during the Seeger days as a kind of conduit to the Americana audience. The sound is big alright, maybe too big, with what seems like a dozen singers getting undernearth Bruce on every chorus. And “Wrecking Ball”, originally casually released as a live single a few years back when Giants Stadium was about to be destroyed, was not only a re-tread, but made carbon paper use of a counterpoint vocal riff that Bruce had dropped on us all the way back in ’88, when he released a live acoustic version of “Born To Run”: A ‘whoa-ho-hoooo-oh-ho’ lick that he used to bring the audience into a performance of the one song that everybody wanted to hear played just like the 45 they bought as a kid.

It seemed that, not only would Wrecking Ball not be an E Street hot rod, but that Bruce had little to say that we didn’t already know. Clearly, there was rage in the lyrics that talked about what Wall Street jackals did to millions of homeowners and job-holders, but the messages seemed behind the times. Yeah, we got deeply rogered, Bruce, four years ago… So, where have you been since? The Occupy movement was last year, and already feels stale, and the pain of the crash of ’07 and ’08 has hardened into scars. It seemed like we were moving on, or trying to, acknowledging our weakness under the corporate scythe, and taking comfort in a slowly recovering economy and a few less battlefields. And then Bruce turns up to tell us how screwed up things are. It just didn’t fit. When Nebraska landed in ’82, it was right at the bleeding edge of what the Reagan Revolution was doing to the US: creating a schism that has yet to heal, or even to start healing. There was a sense of warning in that record, a feeling that the characters were coming to life all around us, that desperate acts were about to be commonplace… That the holster was on your hip. Nebraska seemed to say “The monsters in all of us are coming out from under the bed.” Those who would use our country as a means for their ends exclusively were summoning those monsters. Wrecking Ball, as it arrived, seemed to offer a warning-too-late, and a sense of spite that many of us were already sick of. You can’t hold bile in your mouth too long, but sometimes there’s no point in spitting it out, either. Especially if there is no one around to spit at.

But then I heard the ninth track from Wrecking Ball, a concoction of Lomax field recordings, light hip-hop, beatbox-and-piano, and Biblical imagery called “Rocky Ground.” And then, for me anyway, the ideas and execution of Wrecking Ball began to congeal. That song signaled to me that maybe I was being rash, and that this album might find a home in my home after all.

Like the rest of Wrecking Ball, “Rocky Ground” tries to mix up a big recipe: Gospel choruses making room for dry New Orleans horn parts (tarnished brass actually does have its own sound, it turns out), a touch of Curtis Mayfield guitar, on top of a synthesizer drone, accents from samples of tent revival shouts, and the scratch of a 78-speed record, and more and more revealed with each play. And yet, thanks to producer Ron Aniello, the recording never seems crowded, even with Bruce trading vocals throughout with Michelle Moore.

“Rocky Ground” uses the New Testament metaphor of shepherds and flocks and brings one part of today’s struggles into focus – That we can’t expect a new, brighter day if we only watch out for ourselves. That was the attitude taken by those who got us into this mess in the first place. And shepherds don’t just watch over their charges, nudging them back to he best grazing lands; They also keep watch for whatever predators might threaten their flock. Post-2008 citizens, too, can only pave a safe path by including their neighbors in their concerns, while being fierce to any notion that adversely impacts their rights and future, like the privatization of schools.

Most importantly, “Rocky Ground” talks about traveling over hard, jagged terrain, not getting stuck there. We’ve all done that lately, even if we were lucky enough to keep our homes and hold a steady bank account. We’ve watched retirement funds stagnate, and seen criminals walk away from crimes, and no one doesn’t know somebody who’s been financially crippled by bankers who are no better than Somalian pirates. But through all that, we have indeed, for the most part, kept walking. And we’ve done so without recognition of that progress. “Hold tight to your anger, don’t fall to your fears”, Bruce sings in the title song, in a much more compelling manner than in the song’s original version, as he reminds a generation who only heard rumors of the Great Depression that “Hard times come… and hard times go.” That last point is not one you’ll hear from the army of political and economic pundits that blather on all day every day. Instead, most commentators seem only capable of wallowing in the moment, and resist telling us that we’re stronger for what we endure, and that daybreak always follows night. Through the politicization of our troubles, our prominent media voices seek most often to trumpet the despair rather than encourage us to press on.

And Wrecking Ball, once it is allowed to reveal itself, with each song heard in context, does not do that. As I listened to the album a few times, I found that Bruce’s timing was better than I first thought. As we’ve gotten used to the ‘new economy’, we’ve started to forget how we got these scars in the first place. “Hold tight to your anger”, therefore, turns out to be an important lesson, and “Wrecking Ball”, the song, once a side item in the Bruce catalog, now leaps forward into 3D, anchoring an album with songs that fit best as chapters in a tale with a arc that ends in the voices of ghosts. First, there’s the fingering of culprits and the acknowledgement of the damage in songs like “Easy Money” and “This Depression”, along with the recognition that while our dreams may be sacrificed (a long-time Springsteen theme), we have skills enough to get by (“Jack Of All Trades”). Then comes the resistance that starts with the line “Bring on your wrecking ball” and continues through a brighter, louder version of the 12-year old “Land Of Hope And Dreams”, an evocation not just of Bruce’s promised land, or even Chuck Berry’s, but of the one created through settling of a new continent and the salvage of souls pushed too hard by life in Europe three hundred years ago.

Presented in concert, the Wrecking Ball songs mingle well with staples like “My City Of Ruins” and “Badlands”, and you can feel the band stretching them back and forth. None less than “Jack Of All Trades”, which now sits next to “Racing In The Streets” as an epic of a couple standing up to their circumstances, not just accepting them, which is what the robber-barons want of us all, anyway.

And when you come home to hear the album again, it’s concept takes full root, and Wrecking Ball emerges as an album that outstrips its initial misconceptions and ranks as better than any Springsteen has made in thirty years.

The E Street Band sound of 1978 is now gone for good, as much by the deaths of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons as by the Irish/gospel/soul/Guthrie stew that Bruce now serves up in place of roaring engines and summer nights. And, happily, that stew has come to mature quickly and form a taste that we may one day long for as much as we once ached for the E Street Band of old.

Wrecking Ball looks ahead with its chin up but not with its cheek turned. And we should, too.

– Mister Stick

Last Album: Dr. John, Locked Down (preceded by 4 plays of Wrecking Ball)

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