You've got to give it to Bruce Springsteen: dude is aging well. The 62-year-old rock legend has managed to stay relevant for his entire career, and his work ethic hasn't faded, at least not since that seven-year gap in records before 2002's The Rising. His albums may be uneven -- from the excellent We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions to the solid Magic to the troubling, slow darkness of Devils & Dust -- but he always seems to be behind his work. Succeed or fail, he is not half-assing it, and on top of that his tours remain reminders of his greatness, yet not overbloated victory laps.
His latest, and 17th, studio album, Wrecking Ball, is another heartfelt shot fired for the working man, and perhaps the most timely record in his discography since Reagan was in office (even more than the post-9/11 sentiment of The Rising). The piss and vinegar are back and more charged here than on the past few records, with the Boss taking dead aim right away on opener "We Take Care of Our Own." The song is unlikely to fall into "Born in the U.S.A." territory and be co-opted by a Presidential campaign, but it condemns blind flag-waving and American Exceptionalism in the same way. "Wherever our flag is flown," he insists, "we take care of our own."
This lean opener has the Boss gritting through his teeth, seething but never quite shouting as he sings for everyone "from the shotgun shack to the Super Dome." It's a scathing, bitter start to a record that has a lion's share of bitterness. "Easy Money" has a down-and-out couple charging out on the town in their finest dress to rob whoever they can. "Death to My Hometown" takes aim at the corporations and big businesses that killed small towns and small-town people even if "no blood soaked the ground."
Springsteen makes plain his recession-time objectives here: this is all about the haves and have-nots, with Springsteen unsurprisingly championing the latter. If there is a bitter streak in the record, it's tempered with resilience. They will get what's coming to them, while we will endure. The title track shows Springsteen's Jersey pride as a source of personal strength, and invites big wigs to try and take him -- or any hard-working American -- down. "Land of Hope and Dreams" takes a similar populist strength tack, and closer "We Are Alive" is an all-encompassing declaration, a statement on the enduring strength of people when confronted with faceless, senseless hardship.
The music is similarly triumphant here, and while much of this isn't far removed from what we usually expect from Springsteen -- there are those trademark Boss-ian chimes to be found here -- he does take some interesting chances. "Death to My Hometown" combines choral singing rooted in African tradition with tin whistle, which is integral to Irish folk music, and the combination is striking and the idea behind it -- the universality of the people's music, no matter who the people are -- is a fascinating one. Elsewhere, Springsteen taps into American traditions, especially gospel, soul, and country. "Land of Hope and Dreams" borrows from Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" to solid effect, while "We Are Alive" is built on the horn riff from "Ring of Fire." Springsteen even revisits his own past at the start of "Land of Hope and Dreams," which sounds quite a bit like "Glory Days." There's also the bittersweet sound of Clarence Clemons' saxophone on two songs, and Springsteen honors him well in the liner notes.
Springsteen's use of different traditions fits well with his ideas of populist rebellion, which is an idea that has itself gained strength in recent history and taken shape in various mainstream revolutions. But if Springsteen's approach here is well conceived, its execution often sounds more well intentioned. There are a few missteps -- Michelle Moore's rap on "Rocky Ground" is another interesting tradition shift, but it feels ill placed -- though much of the problems here come from production. In particular, the drums are sledgehammer-subtle, far too high in the mix, and end up obscuring much of the sounds here that aren't Springsteen's voice. The other elements get shined up and sanded down in the studio, so that sometimes the bite gets taken out of what is, in theory and on the page, one of the stronger sets of Springsteen songs -- excusing the easy-to-miss "You've Got It" -- in recent memory.
The blue-collar ballad "Jack of All Trades" ends up being the best combination of sound and production here. Much of the song rides on the Boss's voice and piano as he runs down a list of household chores he'll complete just to make sure "we'll be all right." The best part of the song, though, comes in its second half, when the working man trying to get by all of a sudden imagines violence. "If I had a me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight," he growls, and then the songs bursts open with a Tom Morello-played guitar solo. There's nothing frustrated or angry about it; it's towering and triumphant. This is E-Street big, and it's the best example of the strange but compelling mix of rage and resourcefulness that Springsteen presents on Wrecking Ball.
If that presentation doesn't always hit the mark, the sentiment behind it often does, and the album never completely derails. So while you might wish Springsteen (or, rather, producer Ron Aniello) had done a few things differently, it's still unlikely you won't find yourself warming to the embers of Wrecking Ball. Even if they could have been bonfires.