By Mark McEntire
While Wrecking Ball is Bruce Springsteen’s 17th and latest studio album, it marks some important firsts. Above all, it is Springsteen’s first studio album since the deathof band mate Clarence Clemons.
The “Big Man” was such a close companion that many feared his death might bring a long silence. Fortunately, for long-time fans and new, Scooter wrote and sang his way out of the loss, a process most visible in a song called “This Depression” that sits in the middle of the album and leads into the title song, in which the Big Man’s saxophone is resurrected.
“Wrecking Ball” and “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which appears two tracks later, had both been around long enough in live performances by the E-Street Band that the saxophone tracks by Clarence were available for the mixing.
This is also the first album since the documentary film The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town appeared and took Bruce and his listeners to the core of his songwriting. The film was named for the song that was too good for that album, so it had to wait three decades for studio release.
In the film, other members of the E-Street Band talk painfully about the exclusion of “The Promise” from Darkness, while Springsteen himself explains that he was “too close” to this song and thus “couldn’t trust it.” That closeness is evident in these lines:
Inside I felt like I was carrying the broken spirits
Of all the other ones who lost
When the promise is broken you go on living,
But it steals something from down in your soul
Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference
Something in your heart goes cold.
During an interview in the film Springsteen said, “I’ve spent most of my creative life measuring the distance between the American dream and the American reality.” In that sense, Wrecking Ball feels like the full unpacking of that single song from 30 years ago.
It is difficult not to notice one particular mispronunciation in the first song, “We Take Care of Our Own.” In lamenting the terrible response of the United States government to Hurricane Katrina, Springsteen sings: “There ain’t no help, the ‘calvary’ stayed home.”
The printed lyrics in the booklet that accompanies the album correctly read “cavalry.” This is not an uncommon mispronunciation, so it could simply be a mistake, but it is difficult to imagine that it could slip through into the final cut of such a carefully produced musical product.
The confusion, whether accidental or deliberate, calls greater attention to the actual appearance of “Calvary,” the traditional name of the place where Jesus was crucified, which appears in “We Are Alive” at the end of the album.
This is Springsteen’s most overtly religious album. Veteran listeners may also find the politics and social activism more overt than on previous albums, though some individual songs on Magic and Devils and Dust brought similar themes to the surface, and they had always been seething beneath this surface since Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Perhaps what is newest and most surprising is the eclectic nature of the music, with styles from Celtic to gospel to hip-hop. There is even a significant amount of sampling from other songs, the most satisfying of which are the many elements of Curtis Mayfield’s class “People Get Ready” or “Land of Hope and Dreams.”
This collection of songs tries to pull a lot of things together and often succeeds, so the sonic diversity fits the goal of the album. Its hopes to keep America together in the midst of current struggles are most visible in “American Land,” one of two bonus tracks available on an extended MP-3 version.
Critical responses to this latest effort run the gamut. Many writers seem preoccupied with strange questions about whether an artist as successful as Springsteen can still sing about the poor and the “working-class.” I suppose it is so common for celebrities to abandon their roots that some may wonder if they are allowed not to.
Rock and roll has produced very few artists who have written and sung their work for four decades plus, so what can Springsteen’s work be measured against? We now have a record of his songwriting that covers a full adult life, from early 20s to early 60s, so naturally it has its ups and downs and a sense of the ordinary that is rarely present in popular music.
While a young Springsteen may have appeared to many like the next Bob Dylan, in later life he looks much more like Johnny Cash, so when what Johnny called the “Mexican trumpets” from “Ring of Fire” show up in “We Are Alive” the record ends just right.