By Al Kaufman
The Boss is back.
I honestly never thought I would get a chance to write those words. A Springsteen fan since before my teen years, I have watched as Bruce slowly grew into a caricature of himself. It was like he had read all the hype about himself and realized he had to speak for the common man. Albums like The Rising, Working on a Dream, and Magic seemed a little too forced and contrived. Plus they employed too much organ and not enough screaming guitar. He showed some signs of life when he cut through the clutter with the Seeger sessions, but mostly he was just slowly slipping into middle, or old, age.
But Wrecking Ball has the anger of Darkness on the Edge of Town, the hope of Born to Run, and the carnival-like musical ride of The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. This is primal Bruce, fueled by piss and vinegar, but tempered by hope and dreams.
Like “Born in the USA,” first single “We Take Care of Our Own” at first glance may sound like a jingoistic anthem, but little more than a perfunctory listen is all it takes for one to register the disgust Springteen has for the hypocritical and self-righteous who were not there during our country’s times of need, and only stood around and pointed fingers. Title track “Wrecking Ball” was originally an ode to the fallen Meadowlands, but now stands as a taunt and a dare to anyone trying to squelch what is noble and great.
Even better than that, the song pulsates with emotion. The smartest thing Springsteen did for this album was not bring back producer Brendan O’Brien. Instead, he went with Ron Aniello, the multi-instrumentalist and producer who has worked with everyone from Christian rock groups such as Jars of Clay, to the pop of Barenaked Ladies, to the radio-friendly rock of Candlebox. In short, Aniello has breathed some life into Springsteen’s melodies.
“Easy Money,” about a man just itching to to steal some money at gun point so he can take his girl out, and the following “Shackled and Drawn,” possibly about the same man after he has been caught, both have the old-time Americana feel that Springsteen enjoyed so much with Pete Seeger’s Sessions Band. Along with “Death to My Hometown,” a Celtic infused number that Flogging Molly would be proud to perform, all offer desperate times with the most jovial of melodies that jump out of the speakers.
On the other end of the spectrum, “Jack of All Trades” and “This Depression,” two ballads featuring Tom Morello on guitar, are sparce and cut to the quick. The character in “Jack of All Trades” will do anything from mow your lawn to fix your car to harvest your crops for a couple of bucks. He’s on his last leg, but he has that glimmer of hope as he assures his girl, “I’m the jack of all trades, we’ll be all right.” “This Depression” is Springsteen at his most vulnerable. Feeling as low and lost as he has ever felt, he tells his love, “I need your heart.” Both songs are moving and are not spoiled by overproduction that O’Brien employed on earlier releases.
The only thing that doesn’t work here is “Rocky Ground,” but even that is a beautiful disaster. The female vocals that sing the refrain “We’ve been traveling over rocky ground, rocky ground,” are beautiful and soulful. The gospel touch is nice. But dropping raps in the middle of songs wreaked of desperation 20 or so years ago. Now it just reeks. Thankfully, Bruce was smart enough to not do the rapping himself, but left it to Michelle Moore.
This is not an E Street Band album. Stevie Van Zandt only shows up on one cut on the deluxe edition. Max Weinberg, who usually plays with Bruce no matter what Bruce is doing, only drums on three songs. The late Clarence Clemons blows his mighty horn one last time on the title track and “Land of Hope and Dreams” (which first appeared on Live in New York City over 10 years ago). Roy Bittan, Nils Lofgren, and Gary W. Tallent are all MIA.
Almost 40 different musicians, including horn sections and choirs, come together for Wrecking Ball. They give the album a sense of spirituality and soul that has been missing in Springsteen albums of late. Aniello incorporates whoops and hollers throughout, adding even more energy to the anthems.
And that’s what most of these songs are. These are anthems; anthems about hope among the failure. These are songs that beg to be played live. They beg to be played loud. Bruce may be well into his sixties now, but he can still teach the kids how to rock. Welcome back, Boss.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play Philips Arena March 18th. It is sold out.