Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bring On Your Wrecking Ball

"The verses are the blues, the chorus is the gospel," Bruce Springsteen once said in an interview. He might have been talking about his then release "The Rising" specifically, but that statement could apply to any one of the man's songs. "Wrecking Ball" hits officially in a couple of weeks, but I spent the last two days becoming very close to this fantastic piece of work.

To paraphrase a friend, judge art by what it's trying to be and what it is, not on what you want it to be.

I think it's safe to say, there isn't a Bruce Springsteen fan who didn't want "Wrecking Ball" to be the new "Darkness On The Edge Of Town." (Isn't that the hope with every release?) Some might have even settled for another collection of tight, radio-friendly songs like the ones found on "Magic." But once you accept the fact that our hero is no longer the man he was 5 years ago, let alone the man he was in 1978, Bruce's "gospel" continues to be very compelling, and "Wrecking Ball" is Bruce Springsteen's gospel record.

Almost all of the songs here are stark, first-person narratives about the will to live and the constant struggle of so many during hard times. The sound of "Wrecking Ball" might be closer to the roots music found on "The Seeger Sessions," with horns, strings and even pennywhistles taking over the musical arrangements, but at its heart, "Wrecking Ball" rips into the soul like "Nebraska."

"Jack Of All Trades" is the centerpiece here, with its hymn-like cadence and story of a man who promises, "Honey, we'll be alright," as he accepts whatever God hands him, good or mostly bad. It's a monster of a song, much-like "Racing In The Street" was the first time we heard it. "This Depression," another ballad with a very heavy plea, is just as powerful, as the drone of a Robert Fripp-like guitar and a distant chorus underscores Bruce confessing as a man who's never felt so weak. "I need your heart, in this depression."

Two songs originally made their debut in concert, "Land Of Hope & Dreams" and the title track. I know many who groaned when they saw the early tracklist a few months ago, feeling as if the space for two new songs had been taken by two that had been previously heard. But just as Bruce can take a song to new heights in concert, The Boss has managed to take two "live" songs to an even higher level in the studio. "Hope & Dreams" and "Wrecking Ball" are a joy; two jolts of inspiration that kick the record into that place you thought was only attainable at an E-Street Band concert.

Though "Wrecking Ball" is a powerhouse, not everything works. "You've Got It" is weak. It's a lyrical speed bumb with a melody on the verses ripped right from "All Or Nothing At All," a song found on not everyone's favorite "Human Touch." "Shackled & Drawn" works on its own, but in this case, it follows "Easy Money," a song very similar in sound, so for me, it gets lost in a haze of sameness. A minor quibble.

The E-Street Band has changed, first with the loss of Danny, then the Big Man. Life is about change. That's an odd thing for someone like me to admit. I've spent many words on these pages pining over the good ol' days when music was "better." But when someone as important as Bruce Springsteen has something to say, the message takes precedence over how it gets delivered. I don't need "Jungleland" any more. Or "Sherry Darling." Or, "Kitty's Back." I know I'll get those in concert, at least once in a while.

I love "Wrecking Ball." I hope you will, too.

1. We Take Care of Our Own
2. Easy Money
3. Shackled and Drawn
4. Jack of All Trades
5. Death to My Hometown
6. This Depression
7. Wrecking Ball
8. You’ve Got It
9. Rocky Ground
10. Land of Hope and Dreams
11. We Are Alive


WHunter said...

Completely disagree with it doesn't all work. Love every song, You've Got It is classing 'Born In The USA' Bruce to me. Don't know how you think Shackled & Drawn following Easy Money is a bad idea, but hey.

Sal Nunziato said...

"Don't know how you think Shackled & Drawn following Easy Money is a bad idea, but hey."

well, it's what I said. That's how.

Troy said...

Thanks for the honest write up. I'm glad you like it so much. I know it has leaked and I have had opportunities to listen, but when it comes to Bruce, I'm a bit of a traditionalist in that I like to purchase his new albums early on release day, bring them home and crack open the seal on the lp/cassette/CD and then give it a listen from front to back. Therefore I will not be able to contribute any responses to the album until March 6. In the meantime, rock on with it and enjoy. You've certainly helped whet my appetite for it.

Anonymous said...

I was one of those who groaned when I saw the track list. The early press didn't help as words like experimental make me nervous where Bruce is concerned. I also pretty much couldn't even listen to Working on a Dream so I was a little wottied about Wrecking Ball.

Worrying was a waste of time. Wrecking Ball is a pretty great record. Is it Darkness? No, but then nothing else has been since 1978 (with the exception of Nebraska). In that time Bruce has grown and changed more than I ever thought possible. Sure there were some mis-steps along the way (I didn't care for Human Touch the album but the song is a favorite)but by and large Bruce has created an amazing body of work. All on his terms.

elizabeth said...

You've got me looking forward to it, Sal. Awhile ago you did a post on beloved artists whose new work we've no longer care about, primarily because they seem to have nothing new to say. If we were constantly getting another "Jungleland" or "Sherry Darling" or "Promised Land" from Bruce, I think we'd grow indifferent and start thinking "I used to like him..." His message, the heart of the music, has remained yet somehow he finds new ways to make it compelling.
"E Street Radio" and "Underground Garage" are the constants on our car radio. On long trips, we sometimes never stray from E Street. It amazes me, as I have a very short attention span and virtually zero tolerance for music I don't like, that this happens. As much as I love other artists, there are very few (The Beatles, yes) I could actively listen to hour after hour after hour.

Did you get tickets for the upcoming tour, Sal? At this point we'll be missing the show when it comes through Buffalo. Two people on computers for close to an hour each, one made it past the "virtual waiting room" only to get tossed back in. Oh well, it helped me rationalize the expense of tickets to see Daryl Hall & Keb' Mo on a night we already have passes for Jazz Fest here in Rochester.

steve simels said...

A beautiful essay, Sal.

And now I can't wait to hear it.

Sal Nunziato said...


No. Did not get tickets. Was the worst three hours of my life, staring at that damn Ticketmaster page.

Chris Collins said...

Great, great post, Sal. I was so looking forward to hearing what you thought of this new record. I agree with you about "You've Got It". It's not bad. It's just weak. The record doesn't need it. And I LOVE "Shackled And Drawn" (And think it will be great live " but I wish It were elsewhere on the record. Actually I wish that were the second track and "Easy Money" was in the "You've Got It" slot.

But those are minor quibbles. I love this record. I love it. I was incredibly moved by "Jack of All Trades" and "Rocky Ground" -which I found jarring at first then hit "repeat" again and again.

Your "Nebraska" comparison isn't off the mark at all. Bruce has not written in such pain, direct language since those sessions. I think this record will really connect with his core audience. It's great.

Dave, Berlin said...

Hi Sal,
well put; started listening to one track a day via Backstreets and the two I've heard so far, 'Easy Money' and 'Shackled and Drawn' are giving me a very warm cosy feeling. I say that coz I had to force myself to like the first offering 'We Take Care of Our own' - for me it starts well and then plummets downhill as soon as Bruce starts to sing the song in a way that just doesn't inspire me. I sometimes wonder if I didn't have zero tolerance for music I just don't like , would I change my mind after repeated listens? Just a thought. Anyway, despite life without Clarence - a five piece horn section will be on board to fill the space - I'll be in Köln, Berlin, Paris and London Hyde Park. Gonna be a good summer; hope you all manage to get tickets too wherever you are. Dave, Berlin.

Peter Ames Carlin said...

I think it's a beautiful record. A kind of masterpiece, really, when you consider how it's both totally Bruce and, in so many places, totally new and different. What knocks me out time and again is how effortlessly the songs synthesize cultural/musical influences from all over the socio-cultural map; from Irish folk to hip-hop, from gospel to American folk to old- and new-school r&b, from blues to electronica. And all of it sounds unified and . . .there's no other word. . .Springsteenesque.

I've got my quibbles too, of course, and Sal identified most of them (though I'm so crazy for "Shackled and Drawn" I love it where it is as much as I'd love it as the opening track, the closing track, a bonus track, whatever. I'm in love with that song, to paraphrase one of my favorite Minnesotans. And I wonder how these seemingly weaker songs will flourish in a live setting? Lordy.

Anything Should Happen said...

As I Said In The Shout It Loud Cbox, Sal has pretty much nailed it.

I think I agree with the downside comments too, certainly the track order is a bit strange.

It does owe a lot to The Seeger Sessions and it is different to what's gone before, but it's certainly not experimental.

It's a great addition to the body of work.

I don't mind Working On A Dream, I understand why people are negative towards it. Magic was FM radio and Working On A Dream just gets confusing and a bit mediocre at times.

I personally disliked Human Touch and Lucky Town and for those who say they would have made a great album, they wouldn't, they'd have made a great EP.

I'm probably in a minority in that I was never that struck on Born In The USA and I'm still not.

Take those out of a four decade career and everything else is just outstanding.

elizabeth said...

@Anything Should Happen - None of "Born in the USA"?

@Sal, I feel your pain with ticketmaster. and it almost feels like one of your oldest friends has decided you can't come to his party.

@Peter Ames, so well said.

Sal Nunziato said...

@ Elizabeth

I can't listen to Born In The USA. It has moments, but they are few. I like it less than any of Bruce's records. Yes, even Lucky Town and Human Touch.

cmealha said...

Sal, Never mind the album. This is your finest work yet, Extremely well written and thought out. Won,t know if your right until I hear it , but still, great jobs. Really! And congrats on the Springsteen site mention. That's gotta make your day, no?

A walk in the woods said...

I'm looking forward to hearing the record. I actually place "Magic" near the top of Bruce LPs I listen to on a regular basis... and that's coming from someone who loves the old stuff too, of course.

But I didn't dig the album after Magic much... it's really faded for me. I'm hoping 'Wrecking Ball' is as good as you say.

Anonymous said...

lovely essay, sal. and i think, in addition to that, you nailed it.

Gav said...

Thanks for the review. Have only heard 3 tracks so far-all sound interesting but without sounding "great" in the way that Bruce's entire suite of music from 73 to 82 did.Maybe thats just not possible.

I'm not expecting another Darkness, but would welcome another Magic as opposed to the awful Working on a Dream.

I'm hoping "Jack of all Trades" is a grower-I have to say that on first listen the chord sequence sounds a little predictable, even tired.Hope further listens prove me wrong-lyrics to the song are great.

Really looking forward to the studio versions of Wrecking Ball and Land of Hope and Dreams, and hearing the album in its entirety.

Tickets already secured for Dublin concert-cant wait!

Scott said...

Listened to this record about 5-6 times yesterday. First couple of times I was pleased. Last couple of times I was literally choked up with the starkness of the images he created. It is a masterpiece.
And let us not forget-he doesn't have to do this. Putting himself out there in defense of the poor and downtrodden places him in the crosshairs of the class warfare conservatives. And he doesn't care, because he stands up for what he believes in.
Much as I love Dylan's recent output, it's mostly ruminations on love and his mortality. It appears he has given up on trying to change the world through his music. Bruce hasn't, and for that he should be applauded.

artlazarus said...

Personally I prefer the rocker Bruce over the preacher Bruce, so I'm not thrilled with Wrecking Ball, especially since two of the better songs are not new in the sense that they have been played on tour. I miss Danny and the Big Man. I felt sad hearing the sax solo on Hope & Dreams, and it is telling that no other songs on Wrecking Ball feature a saxophone. Wrecking Ball must be understood as a Bruce Springsteen album a la Nebraska and the Seeger sessions. There is no more E Street Band. Maybe I have a bad a case of nostalgia and a fixation on the Main Point performances circa 1973. The record is marred by several weak songs and Bruce's tendency to slip into his southern drawl. Still, I didn't mind the rap on Rocky Ground despite the song's historical conflation of events.

big bad wolf said...

i won't hear it until march 6, but i am looking forward to it. i hope you're right about land of hope and dreams. i've always found the song a bit too obvious; i'd like to think he's made something more of the verses than what has been there in the live versions. he's too smart and subtle at his best for me to like the, to me, cliched lyrics, though i can see an argument for simple and traditional (i don't buy it, but i could sell it), lyrics. for me, it suffered too from the 1999 tour when he, the three times i saw him, played it after "if i should fall behind." i thought the full-band, divided vocal arrangement of "if i should fall behind," captured and portrayed the sense of community, support, and unexpected dependence more touchingly than "land of hope and dreams" did.

that said, bruce has, imo, almost always made a song better before it actually makes an album so i am interested to hear the album and the new version. his 21st century albums have been very good to excellent, so i expect this one will be too.

Carmine said...

I liked it more the first time I heard it. But several of the songs are stand out. And the message is right.

For Sal and Elizabeth ... see BTX and sign up for the ticket drop notification service or just grab tix the day before or of the show. They'll be available.

P.S. just stumble on the blog - nice work.

elizabeth said...

@ Sal I'm a couple of days late in responding, but..."Born in the U.S.A." - the plus for it is "No Surrender", which is a strong favorite, especially the line "we learned more in three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school". If only I could have been tested on what I heard on the radio the night before instead of whatever it was I was supposed to be studying. I like "Downbound Train", too.
You're right, though, the negatives are multiple, especially "Dancing in the Dark". The title track was redeemed for me hearing it during his solo tour several years ago. In the end, I was just sticking up for my favorite song, not wanting the baby tossed with the bathwater.
I haven't read today's post yet, but yesterday's was another winner.

@Carmine, Thanks for the suggestion; I'd forgotten about BTX and, though my hopes have dashed there before, it can't hurt to try.

big bad wolf said...

i really hated it when bruce started doing born in the usa slow and solemn. whatever the merits of the rest of the born in the usa album (and i mostly like the songs despite their, to me, nearly unlistenable 80s sound) i thought the title cut was brilliant. it was dissonant, pounding, angry, but above all hurt, the hurt of a believer who ain't through believing that promise can be realized, but who now understands it often isn't and that when it is realized, the realization may come after a wearying fight.

reagan tried to steal the song. lots of yahoos in the audience never got beyond the literal words of the chorus. they couldn't hear its intonations or its context.

and bruce caved. he came to distrust his audience. he stopped doing the song as a howl, as a swirl, as a representation of a promise denied, unrealized, but not unrealizable. he stripped it down and made it A SOLEMN SAD STORY OF A VIETNAM VETERAN WHO DOES NOT FEEL HAPPY. a solemn, sad story that could not be coopted, that could not be chanted, that had to be heard a particular way, that now made the belief the lyrics posited seem like the last tenuous hold of a man who was beaten, not like the determined resolve of a man who would hold the country to its promises.

maybe i overread all this. i've been known to do that. but i think he diminished the song. it, like the brilliance of youngstown or tom joad needed the dissonance and the contradictions of the full band to be alive, to be a song about a person, not a lesson or a lecture demanding assent.

roadworrier said...

I for one like the live versions of "We Take Care of our Own" better - for one thing, Max's drumming propels the song differently, the live singing brings it live, and Bruce's singing (especially on Fallon) is filled with emotion, Somehow an E Street anthem without the E Streeters playing on it in the studio will always sound better live.

At the same time, "Wrecking Ball" and LOHAD come out fine on the record - the LOHAD arrangement is incredibly powerful - and undoubtedly the Big Man's solo adds to the songs poignancy. Here's hoping the Boss opens the song every night in the encore with "This one's for the Big Man", and nephew Jake Clemens gets to blow his horn on this one.

ShadyNC said...

First, regarding "You Got It," I think Roy Orbison still haunts Bruce at times. And Bruce can't resist the urge to sit down and write a quick and dirty little grinder. Personally, I think the song is kind of sexy, but that's just me.

On the record as a whole, I was prepared to be disappointed after hearing We Take Care of Our Own, even though the song has grown on me since I first heard it.

Now, after listening to the whole thing 4 or 5 times, I've got to say that it's brilliant. I just wish Joe Strummer was alive to hear it, not to mention Danny and Clarence.

Nice review, Sal!

cmealha said...

OK. I'm not as big a Bruce fan as most of the folks that have posted on this subject but I like him a lot. I like him for different reasons than most of you do. I like his pop stuff more than 'Nebraska', 'Darkness..' or '..Tom Joad'.
I recognize his importance and talent and think that he deserves all the accolades he gets event though I may not like what everyone's raving about.
Last night, I noticed that he was on Jimmy Fallon and I recorded it. Just finished watching it and I'm still trying to recover from 'Jack of All Trades', one of the most stunning musical performances I have ever witnessed. It drained me to the point of paralysis. I cannot explain how much I was moved and will forever remember the moment. The reason we listen.