Monday, March 19, 2012
We're the Wrecking Ball
Bruce Springsteen is back. And according to fan and detractor alike, he's angry as hell. Given the times in which we find ourselves, this should be unsurprising.
What is surprising, however, is the musical method he's chosen to express this anger: a sound and structure that is at once vintage Springsteen and new territory for the Boss. It's what makes Wrecking Ball not only comfortably familiar, but an album uniquely relevant in a way that few other artists of his level can muster.
Reviews were predictable enough when Wrecking Ball's lead single "We Take Care Of Our Own" was released several weeks back. All the markers of an E Street Band song were instantly recognizable. Screaming guitars. Punching drums. An irresistibly anthemic chorus. And lyrics that walk a tense tightrope between longing for the American Dream and exaltation of those for whom the dream has become a nightmare.
What has changed, however, is the context, the world at large. This is, as many commentators have pointed out, "Springsteen in the age of Occupy." Once again, little surprise that the man who famously told Ronald Reagan to shove it, who has lent the content of countless songs and albums to stories of the dispossessed, should support the first open-ended movement against American inequality in decades.
Says Salon writer Marc Dolan of a recent press conference in Paris:
"Springsteen gave a mixed to favorable review of President Obama's first term, commending the president's hard work on health care and his reduction of the war in Afghanistan, but expressing frustration that neither effort went further. At the same press conference, Springsteen was more unalloyed in his praise of Occupy Wall Street, for their introduction of the very idea of income disparity to the national dialogue.
"Significantly, he told reporters that he probably wouldn't take part in the presidential campaign this year, suggesting that it had been more essential to get up off the bench in 2004 and 2008."
That's not to say this is some kind of political retreat for the Boss. On the contrary, one of the common criticisms of 2009's Working On a Dream was that Bruce's trademark hunger was conspicuously absent. It left some (including this writer) to wonder whether he too was falling victim to a bit of post-Obama complacency.
For as predictable as the vitriol in "Our Own" can seem, there's no mistake that he--like many others who supported Obama in 2008--is once again mad as hell. This, in essence, is what makes Wrecking Ball a familiar Springsteen album. The hunger is back, and the lyrics are dripping with indignation against the 1 percent. What makes the album un-familiar, however, starts after the opening track's final notes.
From the sweaty sing-along of "We Take Care of Our Own," Bruce takes a left-turn into a completely different side. "Easy Money" dwells on the old world of fiddles, acoustic six strings and gospel stomp-claps for almost a minute until anything electric is heard. Choosing one, "Easy Money" is much more representative of Wrecking Ball's musical thrust.
To be sure, we've heard both of these from the Boss many times before. His testimonial style of rock and roll is his most iconic trait. The past 20-some-odd years have also seen his "folk side" become much more prominent (The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils and Dust, The Seeger Sessions). What we haven't heard before is these two sides incorporated and balanced so seamlessly on the same album.
The distinction is an important one, because the dynamic interplay between folk and rock makes Wrecking Ball an album both steeped in history's abject cruelty and a revived sense of rebellion. The mournful frustration of "This Depression" and "Jack of All Trades" is surely known by countless outcast working people.
Just as palpable, however, is an undeterred hope that something better is ahead. In both songs, the rootsy, windswept instrumentation is complimented by the searing electric guitar work of none other than Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello. As for Bruce, he is clearly channeling the ghost of Woody Guthrie in the song's lyrics:
"The hurricane blows, brings the hard rain
When the blue sky breaks, it feels the world's gonna change
And we'll start caring for each other, like Jesus said that we might
I'm a jack of all trades, we'll be all right"
Contrast this with "Death to My Hometown," which takes this glimmer of hope and morphs it into a rage-filled, penny whistle and bagpipe-tinged battle cry:
"Sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves who came around
And ate the flesh of everything they found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
And walk the streets as free men now"
Did I mention that the song is angry? It almost seems designed for the "unwashed masses" of Occupy. Most likely, it was.
This anger, and the lyrics' sometimes violent imagery has some commentators nit-picking on whether Occupy has "found its soundtrack" in Wrecking Ball. It's an oblique concept from the outset, as if any one artist has ever been able to perfectly encapsulate a movement outside the safe pages of a history book.
Tris McCall, music writer for the Star-Ledger, willfully sidesteps the album's most hopeful moments in order to contrast Wrecking Ball with the optimism of Occupy's grassroots. He also makes a fetish of the movement's more moderate wing. "For every protester who felt swindled by financial legerdemain [sleight of hand]," says McCall "there were many others who simply believed they'd been cheated out of an opportunity to prosper."
At the heart of the issue, though, is the ongoing debate on what kind of movement Occupy will end up being--specifically whether it's a movement that can fundamentally change things or just tinker with the setup. McCall isn't only cynical about how quickly today's young people are radicalizing, he seems blind to how much Springsteen's own ideas are shifting.
None of this is to say that the Boss is just on the cusp of declaring himself a card-carrying red (though that wouldn't be a bad development in this writer's eyes). He is, however, coming to a simple yet long-obscured conclusion: that when people's backs are this close to the wall, when all other options have been exhausted, there's little left to do except fight back and take the bastards down:
"When your best hopes and desires
Are scattered to the wind
And hard times come and hard times go...
But they just don't come again
Bring on your wrecking ball!"
First published at SocialistWorker.org