Springsteen’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ takes stock of the 21st-century American Dream
April 14, 2012
By Darren Richardson
Special to The Punditty Project
CD REVIEW - 10 out of 10 stars
Something about the United States of America and Bruce Springsteen just go together, the changing dynamics of the country shaping the musician and his art as much as Springsteen the man embodies a uniquely American response to the political, cultural and financial transformations in his own country and the world, in his own time if not always on his own terms.
On “Wrecking Ball,” Springsteen’s 17th studio album and first since the death of irreplaceable E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, “The Boss” delivers his best album of the 21st century, a stark, brutal assessment of an America plundered by the “robber-barrons,” yet packed with sounds and lyrics that also manage to convey an inspirational picture, conjuring the idea of an America still trying to reach the summit of her highest ideals even in the face of all the economic shrapnel wounding her citizens.
Throughout his long career, Springsteen has given us music that was somehow not just in tune with the times but an essential part of the American energy that shaped a given era. The early, unbridled excitement on such boisterous full-throttle rockers as “Rosalita” grew into the charged-up-and-ready-to-go confidence of songs like “Born to Run,” “Badlands” and “Prove It All Night,” only to run head-on into inescapable adulthood and the consequences of our choices, good and bad, in “The River.”
By the time “Born in the U.S.A.” rocked the American landscape, misinterpreted though it was by some, including the staff of former President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign, Springsteen was already painfully aware that unless American returned to a place of sharing both the rewards and the burdens of freedom, in a land ostensibly devoted to liberty and justice for all, then the nation he called home was headed for some very hard times indeed.
Looking back, his music was not just a soundtrack for those years -- it was also a documentary on the trajectory of millions of American lives that began in the early years of the Baby Boom and continue today, bent but not broken by the sad state of what's left of our social contract.
As the 1980s unfolded, Springsteen’s artistic vision expanded into still deeper themes of love and loss, good and evil and terror and beauty, with these archetypal themes always viewed through a quintessentially American lens. In “Nebraska,” and later on “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “Devils and Dust,” his power to act as a kind of American conscience, perpetually tempted, far from perfect yet still striving toward what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” grew to the point where it took on a life of its own, a life no fan could ignore nor critic deny.
Springsteen’s music has added depth to the national capacity for honest self-reflection, helping us through the somber darkness on the edge of our own private towns while simultaneously exorting us to dance in that same darkness in an altogether different and more celebratory way, the way of transforming heartbreak and teardrops into a musically fueled joie de vivre that passes all rational understanding.
“What I want to know,” Springsteen will sometimes demand of the crowds at his high-energy concerts, “is are you alive out there?”
“Wrecking Ball’ answers that question, but not so much with a resounding “yes” as with a mysterious one, an affirmation of the spirit as much as the flesh, perhaps even more so.
Opening with the ironically titled, “We Take Care of Our Own,” Springsteen sends a clear message that he has no intention of sugar-coating his assessment of an America at the breaking point, unable or unwilling to do what is necessary to keep her citizenry feeling the bonds of a cohesive national purpose or identity.
“I been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone/ The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone…”
And yet the ironic refrain, “Wherever this flag’s flown/ We take care of our own” contains the seeds for what could be, what the vast majority of humans desire in their heart of hearts. Springsteen underscores that powerful hope later on “Jack of All Trades,” a slow-down song that captures the angst of a man trying his best to provide and get by in a world where all the decks, even the fresh ones, have been stacked against him:
“We’ll start caring for each other
like Jesus said that we might
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be alright.”
But the protagonist’s steady commitment to making it all work out, to hammering the nails, harvesting the crops and repairing the engines, is not without its darker moments, and they finally emerge in violent imagery. His rage against the crippling powerlessness spawned by the twisted rules of the latest economic games will not stay suppressed:
If I had me a gun, I’d find
the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right.”
In a March 14 Rolling Stone interview with Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart, a fellow New Jersey native, Springsteen explains the sociological impetus behind his art: “In my music – if it has a purpose beyond dancing and fun and vacuuming your floor to it – I always try to gauge the distance between American reality and the American dream.”
Springsteen succeeds at every turn on “Wrecking Ball,” even when the distance varies depending on who does the measuring. In “Shackled and Drawn,” that reality has transformed into a nightmare loss of individual control that serves as all too apt a metaphor for what is really happening:
I always loved the feel of sweat on my shirt
Stand back son and let a man work
Let a man work, is that so wrong?
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn
In a subsequent verse, Springsteen deftly summarizes the grim implications of continued financial speculation as a basis for the global economy:
Gambling man rolls the dice
Workingman pays the bill
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill
Up on banker’s hill the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn
In “Death to My Hometown,” quite possibly the most in-your-face, speaking-truth-to-power song Springsteen has ever recorded, the Boss aligns himself squarely with the so-called “99 percent,” the majority of Americans who find themselves disenfranchised to varying degrees by the economic shenanigans of the obscenely rich and their Wall Street disasters, from which they walked away in tact on the taxpayers' nearly ever-shrinking dime:
They destroyed our families, factories
and they took our homes
They left our bodies on the planes
The vultures picked our bones…
With so much righteous anger animating the overall energy of “Wrecking Ball,” one might think that the entire effort is really nothing more than a case of melodic sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing. But by the second half of the album, beginning with the title track, the theme is more about transcending the circumstances imposed by outside forces and drawing on our God-given inner strength and sense of basic human decency than it is about succumbing to the desolation of victimhood and the ethical failings of a minority of morally destitute economic overlords.
In “We Are Alive,” Springsteen gives us the most eerily haunting yet simultaneously soothing song of his long career. Defiantly jaunty in melody and exuding an interdimensional energy derived from the combination of evocative lyrics and the triumphant tune, “We Are Alive” serves as confirmation that even in the darkest of times, including the finality of death itself, what is good and right and worth perpetuating in the human spirit can and must continue to endure.
We are alive
and though our bodies lie
here in the dark
Our spirits rise
To carry the fire and light the spark
To stand shoulder to shoulder and
heart to heart
Such lyrics have even more multi-layered meanings given the death of Clemons, “The Big Man,” late in 2011. Imagining Springsteen and the E Street Band without Clarence is akin to imagining the Beatles as a trio or Mount Rushmore without one of its famous presidential faces. The CD booklet for "Wrecking Ball" includes a moving written tribute to Clemons that ends with this matter-of-fact declaration:
“Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies, he leaves when we die.”
And so, in his own profoundly American way, Springsteen lets us know that the show must go on -- if only because that which we call the American Dream lives or dies based on our continued commitment to doing the right thing, even when it seems like the wheels of economic justice may never turn in synch with the divinely inspired music of our hearts.
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“Death to My Hometown” video on vimeo.com