My life has been tracked by Bruce Springsteen. Imagine my mental and spiritual development as Sophia from The Walking Dead and Bruce as Deryl (or whatever bastardization of Darryl it is): I left prints and fragments of my childhood scattered around in a forest, and while every other band talked about how many carrots were left or why the other child in the party is allowed to walk around unsupervised, Bruce was out looking for me. He was out on that hill; he was staring out into the night; he was making a promise that he would meet me in a dream of this hard land. I imputed some beat American stoic philosophy from his records: there’s a darkness on the edge of town, but if you turn up your radio, I’ll save my love for you. There ain’t much cover with no one running by your side. Every Mighty Max drop-forge-hit on the snare, every galloping bass line, every lion’s howl of a Big Man saxophone solo gave me a second more of a glimpse of the promised land. Waiting for me to finish the Deryl metaphor? Too late: I’ve abandoned it, but I do not end up a zombie in the barn; I have not wasted half my life dealing with a veterinarian named Herschel.
TL;DR: Bruce is important to me. Thus, when he releases new records, I get anxious: what if they suck? U2 had good records, but everything they’ve released in fifteen years has been asinine drivel that makes me wonder who really wrote The Joshua Tree. Bruce has sidestepped most of the aging star inflation and collapse, though the quality of his songwriting has taken serious hits. Working on a Dream was rough to digest; a nine-minute album opener with an A-A-A-A rhyme scheme is a stretch for any amount of artistic capital. I don’t think I really enjoy any of the songs on the album besides ‘The Wrestler,” and it’s sad that the tribute to Danny Federici is pretty unlistenable. Magic had a few killer tracks but also hosts some of my least favorite Bruce traxxx ever (namely “Gypsy Biker” and the title track). The Rising is easily the best of his late career stuff, but still loses some sheen because of the awful production. I like to hear the full band, not just Bruce and Steve on guitar.
Given all this, I was pretty skeptical when Wrecking Ball was announced. Most of the big guns in the band have crossed the border: Federici in 2008, Clarence Clemons in 2011. Of course, the E Street band has always been a bit of a rotating cast— bosses extraordinaire David Sancious, Ernest “Boom” Carter, and Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez all played on seminal Bruce tracks (see everything on The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle and most tracks on Born to Run) but now do jazz fusion or something. However, when two founding members die, it’s tough to imagine any album attaining the brilliance that full-band records like Darkness or The River emanate. Their ghosts hang like the fog on some Asbury Park beach, waiting in the wings for the Valhalla E Street reunion at the end of it all; Bruce is left to figure out a sound as impactful as his legends without his sidearm heroes.
The Boss has always been a crafty player, though. At the 1999 VMAs, when essentially no one in the audience knew who Bruce Springsteen was, he got on stage with the Wallflowers and consumed the stage in presence and power; watching the video makes you feel bad for Jakob Dylan (not really, though). For Wrecking Ball, Bruce does not confront the ghosts of Danny and the Big Man; instead, he channels their bodhisattva essence and populates the record with requiems for E Streets past, culminating in jazz-funeral waltz-with-mes down Broadway that mend no faults of late career Bruce and instead erect the E street temple in eternal rock. The title track, though written for the demolition of the original Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands and allegedly told from the building’s perspective, issues a bold challenge to any Springsteen heirs apparent: bring on your wrecking ball. The earth-shaking E Street band has more and better records than you do; their B-side collections make your A-game look like paupers’ pittances. “If you think it’s your time / then step to the line / and bring on your wrecking ball.”
The flip side is that ghosts are still ghosts: dreary, occasionally frightening spectres that never really look quite like the loved living things that became such hollow shades. The band disillusioned with Reaganomics on albums like The River and the Bruce twisted to darkness on Nebraska emerge through the album’s vehemently populist shots at the vices of capitalism. “Johnny 99” stalks “Easy Money,” although his impact is muted by some pretty horrid songwriting (“You put out the dog / I’ll put out the cat”); “Stolen Car” sees its coda in “Swallowed Up.” The former, a bleak River number, ends “But I ride by night and I travel in fear / That in this darkness I will disappear;” the latter’s narrator awakes in darkness and attests that he has “disappeared from this world.” “Death to My Hometown” calls out the Born in the USA album closer “My Hometown” and laments the structured-debt pillaging carried out by “greedy thieves.” “We Take Care of Our Own” takes the same harrowing-realization-satire that BITUSA’s title track made famous: Bruce wants to say we don’t really take care of our own. He’s less subtle here than thirty years ago, so the message loses some bite. Rounding out the Scrooge-at -his-gravestone gloom on the tracks are “This Depression” and “Jack of all Trades,” slow-jam rejects from The Rising with the 9/11 loss swapped for unemployment lament.
It wouldn’t be E Street, though, if the ghosts were all cold and deathly. The sidewalk-bright warmth roars through on “Wrecking Ball” and the cover of “American Land;” ‘We Are Alive” retreads the groove from “My Best Was Never Good Enough” from The Ghost of Tom Joad to “fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.” ‘Wrecking Ball” even has some funny little cues from “Born to Run” with all the “whoa-oh-ohs” at the end. “Rocky Ground” channels The Rising’s E Street taken to church from “My City of Ruins,” and while the track doesn’t have enough muscle, instead sporting hired-hand vocals, samples, and a not terrible but totally ridiculous rap, it still feels redemptive to hear Minister Bruce sing “there’s a new day coming.”
And of course, no ghost could be as big as that of the Big Man: on the best song he’s written in fifteen years, Bruce calls Clemons down from the cosmos on “Land of Hope and Dreams” to deliver a brief a cappella intro and two heart-bursting signature solos. There are even some organ sweeps peppered throughout the track, so memories of Danny light up the boardwalk a few more times. The 808s are gimmicky and totally unnecessary (that goes for the whole album) and they should have kept Bruce’s incendiary guitar solo from the Live in NYC version, but the track loses none of its teary-eyed torches-together greatness.
All told, Wrecking Ball breaks even. Its ham-fisted appeals to the working man are forgiven because the songs that truly resonate on an E Street level transcend their faults and peak at curvature-of-the-earth levels. I strongly recommend the title track, “Death to My Hometown,” and “Land of Hope and Dreams.”
p.s. I blogged lol