Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band’s performance at the 2012 Grammy’s was a good plug for the group’s seventeenth studio album, Wrecking Ball, but it wasn’t great. If you were to go on that performance alone, you might be inclined to think that Springsteen and the gang have finally settled, as they approach forty years since the release of 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. That the days of crafting something as ferocious as Darkness on the Edge of Town or as solemn and devastating as Nebraska were behind them. There’s no shame in that, but it can be disheartening to see a group or artist take a long, steady decline into mediocrity, and remain seemingly content for the rest of their careers to coast on past glories. Then again, it can be just as disappointing to see someone veer so far out of what made them success that their pandering for relevancy is obvious and kind of pathetic.
Springsteen and the E-Street Band played a solid rendition of their latest single, but it didn’t exactly set the world on fire the next day. It was barely mentioned in numerous recaps and was largely overshadowed by such things as Chris Brown and (understandably) Glen Campbell’s farewell performance. It was solid rock and roll, but it felt strangely out-of-place in what was a decidedly bizarre mix of what The RIAA thought the world wanted to see.
The single itself, an energetic, passionate plea that harkens back to the best of Springsteen’s grandiose stadium-rock, comes across much better in its actual studio version. Still, the band got a chance to show what they could still do in the limelight, when Jimmy Fallon devoted an entire week to Springsteen via live performances from the man himself and covers by an eclectic assortment of artists. It was here that songs like “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Wrecking Ball” (which was previously performed live during Springsteen’s last tour) revealed exactly how much creativity and intensity Springsteen and the E-Street band has left. The answer is that they’re far from finished. Both as impassioned, dedicated performers, and in Springsteen’s specific case, as a chronicler of the life and times of the world around him.
Great live performances are fine, a long-time staple of Springsteen and the rest. What really matters is what the album reveals in its narrative, music and sincerity. For decades Springsteen has held a rightfully-deserved reputation as a powerhouse when seen live, and that probably isn’t going to change with the upcoming fifty-one date tour, but what is perhaps more telling is whether or not Wrecking Ball offers anything of true value in its music and commentary. It’s clear throughout that Springsteen still feels like he has a lot to say. It’s even more apparent that he’s not going to merely let his past reputation speak for itself. “We Take Care of Our Own” initially feels like the kind of swing-for-the-fences opening that Springsteen has built his career on. In some ways it is, but attention to the lyrics suggests that we should steel ourselves for some of the darkest, angriest and perhaps most desperate (in terms of that anger, and not in terms of hoping for pertinence) territory Springsteen has visited in quite some time or maybe even ever.
That’s saying a lot if you know your Springsteen discography, but you’d be hard-pressed to find past material that struggles to maintain hope in the face of growing cynicism with the news of each passing day as much as this album does. “Death to My Hometown” has a lot of musical punch to it, a lot of foot-stomping and zealous oomph, but the title and lyrics point to a decidedly different voice, than the one who as recently as 2009’s Working on a Dream had a much clearer vision of the light at the end of the long, claustrophobic tunnel.
The despair runs even deeper with “Jack of all Trades” and “This Depression.” Both tracks push Springsteen and the rest of the E-Street band (some of whom don’t actually appear on the album) into ideas and imagery that spark a voice who is still genuinely interested in combining music with the issues that are of the greatest interest to them. It’s unfair to dismiss Springsteen as a millionaire seeking to get a few more bucks from pushing a few hot topic buttons. The title track, one of the more hopeful messages expressed here, and featuring some beautiful saxophone work by the late, great Clarence Clemmons, isn’t part of a social conscience Springsteen just suddenly discovered. It’s one he’s maintained for as long as he’s been recording material. It’s just the difference here is that it strives to delve deeper than ever before. Some of it succeeds to that end, and some of it, like “Rocky Ground”, falters a bit in its desire to find that deeper, darker place to tell these stories, and tell them with conviction. It’s not a terrible song, but the unnecessary rap portion gives it an overall out-of-place feel, and that does slow the momentum, beautifully set in place at the onset. “Land of Hopes and Dreams” has been a live staple for well over a decade, and its another of the more optimistic songs presented, but it’s inclusion does seem a little unwarranted. A much-better fit for the album’s overall message might have been “Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale)”, which is included as a bonus track on the special edition.
What works for Wrecking Ball is much richer and compelling than any songs that are somewhat on the lacking side. The overall intent of Wrecking Ball is still a strong, fascinating and emotional journey, and not just a loose collection of songs and ideas. This brings to mind that Springsteen’s greatest works are those that show us his ability to create an album that must be met from start-to-finish, in order to be truly appreciated. You can pick and choose your favorites here, but what you’re going to leave Wrecking Ball with are at least a couple of consistent thoughts. Firstly that he can still bring the room to a standstill with provocative, original lyrics and sound. Secondly that he still cares as much about his line of work as he did almost forty years ago. The pressure to continue releasing quality music is largely from Springsteen himself. No one is necessarily expecting him to blow the world away over and over again. Wrecking Ball is a political record to be sure, showcasing noteworthy contributions from outsiders like Tom Morello and Matt Chamberlain, but it’s also a portrait of a man who is never going to stop trying. If that counts for anything, then it’s going to be a long time before he runs out of things to say, and fresh ways of saying those things.
Bruce Springsteen; Wrecking Ball: B+