Nearly 40 years since he first donned his leathers, wrapped his legs round those velvet rims and declared “tramps like us, baby we were born to run“, Bruce Springsteen releases Wrecking Ball, his 17th studio album, and quite possibly, his angriest yet.
It kicks off with the first single to be taken from the album, We Take Care Of Our Own. It’s a fiery track that serves as good intro to the album, as it’s quite possibly one of the more traditional sounding Springsteen tracks featured here. It’s dancing, spritely, Los Campesinos!-esque melody is in contrast to the thumping back beat and political bite in Springsteen’s lyrics. “Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” he asks, questioning the presence of that famous American Spirit, in manner that evokes Born In The USA.
That political bite continues throughout the album. It’s present in the Irish fiddle filled, Wall Street bashing, Country & Western, stomping Easy Money (“when your whole world comes crumbling down, all those fatcats will just think it’s funny“), the marching, gospel campfire powerhouse of Shackled & Drawn (“what’s a poor boy to do in a world gone wrong?“) and perhaps at its most aggressive in the angry Irish folk rant of Death To My Hometown (“they destroyed our family’s factories and they took our homes/they left our bodies on the plains and the vultures picked our bones.“) It’s clear that Springsteen hasn’t mellowed with age.
Originally the album was billed as follow up to Springsteen’s bleak Nebraska, but it’s not until Jack Of All Trades that the first signs of that stripped back aesthetic become apparent. The slow burning, waltzing, simple, somber, piano driven ballad, is an ode to a couple just getting by, containing a lyric that seems to sum up the theme of the album “you use what you got and you learn to make do.” However, any notion of a stripped back affair is blown away when it’s mournful, melancholic horns kick in and that slow burning piano that gets sidetracked by uncharacteristically flamboyant guitars.
In the build up to the release of Wrecking Ball, a lot was made of Springsteen’s experimentation with sound. Indeed, the album does feature a wave of unexpected textures and use of sounds, but it’s towards the last few tracks where the album is at its most experimental. Most notably in the stirring double that begins with Rocky Ground and ends with Land Of Hope And Dreams.
Rocky Ground’s gentle opening is eased in by its sweet, soulful female vocals. Those horns return, but this time they sound uplifting, with a sense of hope that’s contained throughout the song. It all builds to the initially surprising Springsteen penned rap, recited by Michelle Moore, that, again, surprisingly works extremely well, before its gospel choir refrain fades out and returns to the one, soulful, sweet female voice. An inspiring track that combines a large sweep of influences, from gospel, to rock, to hip hop to rap, to unite, leaving you with the underlining message we maybe in the shit, but we’re all in this together.
Land Of Hope And Dreams is an old track, originally written in 1998 and first debuted on the 1999 E Street Band Reunion Tour, that’s been rejigged and sounds rejuvenated thanks to its electronic back beats, gospel choir and fist pumping rally cry of “this train.” The track also features one of the album’s most poignant moments, containing, as it does, one of Clarence Clemons last contributions to The E Street Band recordings. It’s fitting that his last performance comes in a song where his sax solo, although only in short, powerful bursts, is just as integral to the sound and just as iconic as it has ever been.
Sure there’s the occasional misstep, You’ve Got It almost sounds out of place on the album, but for the most part it’s a solid album that you can’t really argue with. Wrecking Ball is classic Springsteen, with a modern twist. On these 11 tracks he manages to maintain that political bite and knack of using his lyrics to paint pictures in tune with the times and reflecting the society around him. While it might not be up there with the obvious Springsteen classics, Born To Run, Darkness On The Edge Of Town et al, Wrecking Ball demonstrates enough interesting and diverse moments to suggest Springsteen is still relevant and is still willing, and driven by developing and growing as an artist. 37 years later and Bruce Springsteen shows no sign of slowing down.
words by George Shaw