Studiously avoiding the drip-feed online clips of the tracks in pre-release week, I had only heard the opening song before the album arrived. Because of that, and the huge amount of positive online coverage, it was with perhaps even more than the usual “new Bruce album” anticipation that I loaded Wrecking Ball into the CD player for the first time. After numerous listens over several days, I have to say that I am not disappointed at all; in fact it has surpassed my expectations.
There was part of me that wondered whether Bruce had another truly great album in him, but he has proved I was wrong to doubt. Even leaving aside the novelty value and sheer excitement of a whole new collection of Springsteen songs to enjoy, I honestly think this will stand as one of his best releases, alongside Born To Run, Darkness On The Edge of Town, Tunnel of Love and The Rising, my personal highlights of his long career. While the subject matter is bleak, reflecting the desperate economic climate in the USA and globally in recent years, the dark background has really sparked Bruce’s creativity, both musically and lyrically. There is something distinctly fresh and free about the songs he has written to express anger, frustration, hopelessness and betrayal, and that is an achievement in itself. There are not many artists around who can sing out a heartbreaking tale of a desperate working man, bringing a tear to the eye, and yet make you want to get up and dance around the room within the space of the same four minute song. But that is what exactly what Bruce manages on this album.
Beginning with the wonderfully cynical “We Take Care of Our Own”, the album is superbly performed and produced from start to finish. Musically, the thing that strikes me the most is the rhythmic feel of many of the tracks, driven by heavy, surging beats. Alongside that are some trademark brilliant guitar lines, including wonderful solos on “This Depression” and “Jack of All Trades”. Superbly incorporating a huge diversity of stylistic influences – gospel, Irish folk, rock, tribal chant, chain gang work song – and turning it into something so typically Springsteen yet, at the same time, so innovative, is perhaps the biggest achievement of the album.
At this early stage, it is hard for me to pick out individual favourite tracks, but I will mention several that have immediately struck a particular chord with me. “We Take Care of Our Own” is as good as anything Bruce has recorded since “The Rising” album in my opinion. The vocal is particularly impressive, and anyone who says Americans don’t understand irony has obviously not yet heard Bruce delivering the killer title line of the song (although how many understand it will be revealed by the (mis)interpretation of the song in the months ahead). “Jack of All Trades” is definitely a song that creeps up on you, seeming at first listen rather stately in pace, with relatively simple lyrics, but as the verses progress we move from desperate optimism, to resignation, to violent anger. And just when you think it has been quietly effective, the instrumental coda kicks in, making the hair on the back of my neck stand up and showing off as well as anything for many years Bruce’s ability not just to write rousing songs and moving lyrics but actually to write pure superb music. “Death To My Hometown” is an incredible piece – you would never think that tribal chanting, Irish whistle and pounding rock beats could be combined, but that is exactly what happens here, to great effect. Bruce sings in a kind of furious growl, as he takes the already bleak outlook of his classic “My Hometown” and updates it to tell of the true impact of loss of jobs, spirit and sense of community on a town and its people.
Finally, I have to mention “Land of Hope and Dreams”. Some people have been critical of Bruce for putting a song that has been around for over a decade on his new album, but I don’t go along with that at all for several reasons. Firstly, it is one of my favourite Springsteen songs, and a staple of most of the shows I have seen since the Rising tour, so I have no problem at all with it being on here, especially as there has not yet been a studio version released. Secondly, this is a reworking of the song anyway, with more gospel influence and more attack in the guitar, especially the intro. The one thing it does retain is the saxophone part, played by the late, great Clarence Clemons. Most of us anticipated some kind of tribute to the Big Man on the next album, but at the same time wondered what could be done to do him justice. Ultimately, including a song that features his brilliant playing is the best tribute there could be to a man who has been an integral part of our experience of Bruce’s music for so many years. With Bruce, it is always about light and shade. Often that happens within a song, with despair set against hope, but with such an unrelenting dark mood running through the entire Wrecking Ball album, it needs a song with a more upbeat feel and message to it to give some balance and that is the role I feel “Land of Hope and Dreams” fulfils.
There is no doubt that the politics behind Wrecking Ball are likely to get as much attention as the music itself, if not more. For me, that is a shame to some extent, but inevitable for any artist who uses their art to make such bold and unequivocal political statements. From the other side of the Atlantic, I am not ideally placed to assess the message of the album, or the circumstances that gave rise to it in the USA. Instead I take a more general approach to the political aspects, and try to draw some links with the UK experience. Coming originally from a mining community that was devastated by closures, and seeing my late father struggle with unemployment and the challenges it brings over many years, the songs that deal with these issues are obviously the ones that hit home hardest for me. And I believe Bruce accurately gives voice to some of the emotions involved for those affected and the people around them, for which he should be praised. Looking more widely, it has often been said that Bruce is a champion of the working man. In fact that has become very much a cliché, but for me it is a crucial point. Yes, he is on the side of the downtrodden and the underdog, those who are cast aside by corporate interests, but the word “working” is the key one here. The message I strongly get from Bruce’s music, not just on this album but over many years, is of the importance of work in terms of self-respect and personal fulfilment. The tragedy in so many of the songs is not being at the bottom of the heap per se, it is being denied the dignity that fair, unexploited work brings people. The characters in Bruce’s songs do not want a handout or sympathy, they want a chance to work to look after themselves and their families. From a UK perspective, I believe this is a very valuable point in our debate on welfare reform and the culture of worklessness and wanting something for nothing that has been allowed to grow up in some sections of society. Meanwhile, I cannot help but think the ideas behind “Land of Hope and Dreams” are equally valid in the UK as in the USA. A more mischievous writer than I might even muse that the train carrying everyone along resonates with ideas like “all in this together” and “big society”. After all, it would not be the first time that “man of the people” Springsteen has had his work appropriated by the political right!
While the political ideas and arguments in Wrecking Ball are fascinating and worthy of lengthy discussion, it is ultimately all about the music. In that respect, I believe the album is a triumph. The easy option for Bruce would be to keep churning out a few new mid-paced rock numbers every couple of years and rake in the dollars on tour. Few would actually blame him for that in his 60s, but he has gone down a totally different road. Fusing a diverse range of styles and influences, he has succeeded in creating an album that is both instantly recognisable as his work and yet a fresh, different sound. That combination of familiarity and surprise is what really works for me throughout the album. The themes may be dark, but the ultimate feeling I am left with is something else entirely. Bruce has turned what could have been a challenging listen, considering the subject matter, into something uplifting and inspirational, truly some of his very best work. Now roll on those summertime shows in Manchester and London…