Friday, March 9, 2012

Getting Wrecked with the Boss

Is it hypocritical for Bruce Springsteen, a millionaire rock star, to write an album decrying our country's unfair distribution of wealth?

Springsteen was never really a blue collar worker, but he's been singing and writing songs about them for his entire career. And in a way, his live shows are a form of physical labor: for three and a half hours, he literally DOES NOT STOP running, jumping, screaming, sweating, twirling guitars and microphone stands, crowd surfing. Fun? Sure. But physically demanding. And at age 62, he works harder for those millions than most 20-year-old performers.

On top of that, Bruce gives a ton of money to charity. He leads a quiet life in NJ with his family. In short, he's not a typical spoiled celebrity: bitching about inequality, then buying $30,000 worth of cocaine.

All that being said, there were a few moments on his new album, Wrecking Ball, where I couldn't help thinking: "Wait a're rich!" Specifically, the line "Up on Banker's Hill, the party's going strong / Down here below, we're shackled and drawn" doesn't quite land the right way. Springsteen has the right to criticize the bankers and C.E.O.s and politicians whose greed caused the economic recession; but it gets a bit stickier when he complains that bankers are living better than the working classes. Because, hey...HE's living better than the working classes, too.

Much more effective is a song like "Death to My Hometown," which focuses on the ruthlessness and stealth of the financial elite, rather than their quality of life. The song presents them as "marauders" and "robber barons" who snuck into town under cover of night, unseen by anyone. Without guns or bombs, they destroyed families and factories and picked the bones clean. It's one of the best songs on the album, reminding us that theft and crime have evolved, even as our legal system has failed to keep up.

Musically, the album is exactly what you'd expect from Springsteen (except for a hip-hop break on "Rocky Ground," performed by a female singer, which is quite beautiful and fits surprisingly well). When I first learned that Bruce wasn't doing this as an E Street Band album, I figured he was going for a sparser sound, a la The Ghost of Tom Joad (another album that dealt with economic instability and unemployment). Instead, this sounds EXACTLY like an E Street Band album. Weinberg, van Zandt, and Clemons do each appear on a couple of tracks; but overall, this is a different group of people trying to sound as much like the E Street Band as possible. Given the fact that he's touring for the album WITH the E Street Band, I don't know why he didn't just use them in the studio. But either way, it works fine. Everyone rocks hard, and if you like Springsteen's sound, you'll like the album musically.

As an added bonus, Wrecking Ball is mixed WAY better than his last three albums, all produced by Brendan O'Brien. O'Brien, for whatever reason, seemed to love burying Bruce's vocals under the band, going for (I guess) a Phil Spector Wall-of-Sound type approach. The problem is, Bruce's vocals are growly enough as it is, and with the band wailing over him, you miss half the lyrics. Thankfully, this album is produced by Ron Aniello, and every word is perfectly clear, so you can listen to the freaking thing WITHOUT reading along in the liner notes. Hallelujah!

Lyrically, I don't think this album is quite as brazen or ballsy as a lot of reviewers are implying. Bruce is saying the stuff you'd expect a liberal, socially-conscious rock star to say: fat cats don't give a shit, they need to be held accountable, etc. I agree with him, and it's a well-executed album both musically and lyrically, by and large. It rocks, it makes valid points in occasionally interesting ways. But it's not bringing anything new to the table. It didn't make me think; it just made me nod my head in agreement.

The first track, and lead single, is "We Take Care of Our Own." It's a good song that reminds me of "Born in the U.S.A." in the sense that the verses are cynical and dissatisfied with the way our country is going, but the chorus has an ironic flag-waving attitude. The song is prone to be taken for a patriotic anthem by people who aren't listening too closely (just as Reagan mistook "Born in the U.S.A."). Maybe someone can convince Romney to start using it at rallies.

For my money, the only real filler tracks are the two straight love songs, "This Depression" and "You've Got It." I guess they provide some relief from the gloom-and-doom railing-against-the-man stuff, but they feel generic, like Bruce forced himself to write them.

"Wrecking Ball" is a song Springsteen wrote in 2009 when he performed the last set of concerts at Giants Stadium. It's possibly the most energized, rocking track on the album. It's stuck between the two aforementioned "filler" tracks in an act of brilliant sequencing, to keep the adrenaline going through what could have been a huge lull. I can't remember if he's added lyrics to the song since the '09 incarnation (I'm inclined to say that he did), but at that time it seemed like a cool nostalgic anthem to get the crowd amped up...summoning up the ghosts of past victories and childhood memories in the stadium, while daring the son-of-a-bitch with a wrecking ball to try to knock all THAT history down. The version on the album, while keeping the explicitly Giants-and-Meadowlands-themed lyrics, turns into something more universal in the second half. The celebration of life in the face of destruction becomes personal ("When all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots"). It fits in perfectly with the message of the rest of the album...especially when you consider that the Giants' new stadium is named after a major corporation. It's one of the strongest songs on the album, and I think it benefits from being less on-the-nose than some of the tracks.

The album ends with a one-two punch of upbeat, semi-optimistic songs. "Land of Hopes and Dreams" is a simple but elegant Gospel-style song that he's been doing live since 1999. This studio version has the late, great Clarence Clemons' final saxophone solo. It feels appropriate: Bruce is singing about an idealized, probably unattainable version of America. And Clarence's ebullient saxophone seems to be calling to us from some other plane of existence, right in front of us...yet gone forever. It's even more poignant when Bruce says the train carries "sweet souls departed."

The final song, "We Are Alive," ties death even more explicitly to Springsteen's ideal vision of America. It's a rallying cry sung by the deceased. Those who have died from injustice, be they 19th century railroad builders or victims of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, are still alive and with us, as long as we keep fighting the good fight, shoulder to shoulder with them. Again, a simple message, but a beautiful one, presented as a heartfelt and bouncy Irish folk song.

Ironically enough for an album protesting corporate greed, Columbia decided to milk consumers a little by releasing a "special edition" with two extra tracks. It's $3 extra on Amazon, and worth the upgrade, if you're a fan. "Swallowed Up" has a very sparse arrangement and some bleak imagery, comparing our current situation to the biblical story of Jonah & the Whale. It's different, and a little darker, than anything else on the album. The second song, "American Land," is another one that Bruce has been doing live for years. It's a great, bitterly ironic song about the immigrant experience, set to a frantic jig and sung in a cheerful Irish lilt. Both songs are very strong, fit the album's message, and probably should have just been on the album proper.

Check out the liner notes, too. There's a nice (if slightly self-indulgent) tribute to Clarence ("How big was the Big Man? TOO FUCKING BIG TO DIE").

My most major complaint about the whole thing is that, like Springsteen's last few albums, the CD comes in a cheap eco-friendly cardboard sleeve. "Go Green!" and all that, but I freaking HATE trying to slide CDs in and out of these things. Scratches and fingermarks are inevitable, and it's literally impossible to pull a CD out of a case like this while driving. I'm all for helping the environment, but there HAS to be a better design.

So, another solid Springsteen album: his most unified since The Rising, and containing a few tracks that rank among his all-time best (especially the title song). Throw in Clarence's last performances, and this album is a no-brainer for even casual Bruce fans.

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