When your image is that of the everyman, every man (and woman) sees you just a little bit differently.
Bruce Springsteen’s persona is a bit of a marvel, really. On the one hand, his working-class, anthemic rock and roll revue seems so clearly defined that it’s practically begging for parody and caricature. But while no one would mistake The Boss for a musical chameleon, his 40-year career has shoved a remarkable amount of stylistic variety into that rigid definition. He’s one of America’s great heroic songwriters, but also one of its greatest tragedists too. He’s written dance-hall R&B and chart-topping pop, but also folk at both ends of the party-to-pity spectrum. He’s respected by punks, yet also embodies the corporate arena rock of the 1970s. He’s occasionally seized the cultural zeitgeist, but also makes records that seem entirely out of time.
That flexibility owes a great deal to the time in which Springsteen’s persona was largely defined: the three years between 1975’s Born to Run and 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. The former album, the culmination of a three-record arc filled with wordy stories about bridge-and-tunnel kids high on romantic desperation, made him “the future of rock and roll.” The latter album, in contrast, is where Springsteen learned to be efficient with his words, rust belt in his narratives and how to end his tales in tragedy (never better than in “Racing in the Street,” turning his own automobile/rock salvation mythology on its head).
Unable to record due to a legal dispute with his former manager, Springsteen wrote more than 70 songs in this period, experimenting with sounds, styles and stories. He wrote for other artists: The Pointer Sisters, Patti Smith and the Ramones, for whom Hungry Heart was originally intended. Thanks to new manager Jon Landau, he became a reader for the first time in his life, devouring books on politics and American culture. And, as detailed in segments of Will Hermes’ stunning new book Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, he spent a lot of time bouncing around the New York music scene. He played with Smith, he listened to Suicide, and like many, he was impressed by punk – particularly England’s The Clash.
So it’s not surprising that even as he became an American cultural icon, Springsteen’s persona never reduced itself. It maintained its capacity to envelop other sounds and sensibilities, and allowed him to stay relevant in a way his peers could only dream of (his quiet 1990s excluded). His sound syntheses place him at the heart of the body of masculine American rock: between the brain (Dylan), the waist (Elvis), the feet (James Brown) and the fists (the Ramones), but with the capacity to use all of these appendages to great effect.
Of course, the one problem with this is that listeners may only hear—or be interested in hearing—the Springsteen they want. (Remember how Ronald Reagan actually thought that Springsteen’s early 80s music was suitable to namedrop?) This is something I come across a lot when discussing Springsteen’s body of work with people, and it’s particularly pronounced in early reactions to Wrecking Ball, Springsteen’s 17th proper album that’s out tomorrow. Some reviewers seem more focused on what the album isn’t than what it is.
Everyone seems to love that Springsteen sounds more riled up and angry than he’s been in a long time. However, it’s the sound doesn’t seem to be click with everyone. Stereogum wrote that the album’s content is “not really a subject that lends itself very well to Springsteen’s specific brand of larger-than-life throaty uplift.” Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune wrote that Springsteen has “lost his nerve as a coproducer, going for stadium bombast instead of the unadorned grit these stories of hard times demand.”
I’ll paraphrase: they’re saying that Wrecking Ball isn’t Nebraska.
Nebraska looms large over the Springsteen discography. If Born to Run and Born and the U.S.A. are his zeitgeist peaks—with an honourable mention for The Rising’s post-9/11 sensibilities—it’s Nebraska that earned Springsteen the critical credibility that he held onto through the stadium years, into his 1990s exodus from the mainstream, and propelled him into his 2000s comeback. (Case in point: Nebraska is the only Springsteen album to make any of Pitchfork’s albums lists.) The album has a good sound, great songs and an even better mythology: the album of recordings so starkly compelling that even the incomparable E Street Band couldn’t improve upon them.
But it’s also a very easy album to admire. From a rockist point of view—one that values the life-changing seriousness of rock and roll, the sanctity of the album and choosing principle over commercial ambition—Nebraska is a home run, but one that’s hit off a down-the-middle change-up. It’s a stark, simple vision, with stories that come together to make a compelling whole, but which find a lowly down-in-the-trenches note and plays it for 40 minutes straight.
Not that I’m slagging the album: hell, one of my favourite school papers I’ve ever written was a detailed argument positioning Nebraska as a counterpoint to Reganism. But as I grow older, I find myself more drawn to the variety in the Springsteen catalogue, rather than its isolated extremes. I have particular sympathy for the argument that Geoffrey Himes puts forth in his 33 1/3 series book on Born in the U.S.A.: that Springsteen is at his most compelling not when he isolates himself in one end of his persona, but when he attempts to bring together its edges, its knots and its diversity all in a total package.
Born in the U.S.A. does this: it’s tragic, comic, funny, sad, contemplative and combustive. The River does too, though it’s more scattered. Darkness on the Edge of Town works in arcs: each side of the record starts with hope and ends with resigned defeat, with a few moments of sexual release in between.
And now, we have Wrecking Ball – an album that doesn’t separate its joys from its sorrows, but crashes them into each other, song after song.
Mixing anthems with angst is an easy path to misinterpretation. “Born in the U.S.A.,” for example, was originally recorded as part of the Nebraska demos, but Springsteen eventually decided to pair its discouraged, downtrodden lyric with a major-key synth riff backed by a mighty Max Weinberg drum beat. The result was a hit, but it also led to a lot of people singing the chorus and not realizing the pain and anger that was behind it.
However, one of the great points Himes makes in his book is when he challenges the common belief that the song’s chorus is “ironic,” or a mockery of patriotism. He argues, quite convincingly, that while the song certainly suggests a broken American dream, the go-for-broke chorus isn’t indicating that the phrase “born in the U.S.A.” is meaningless: it’s arguing that it should mean something, and that America isn’t living up to its promise. In pairing a downtrodden lyric with an anthemic chorus, Springsteen gives a righteous fury to his character’s point-of-view: he knows what the real America should be.
It’s a trick that Springsteen repeats in “We Take Care of Our Own,” the opening track of Wrecking Ball. Perhaps anticipating another misinterpretation, Springsteen’s video for the song awkwardly includes the lyrics printed right up in front of the action. The verses are even more pointed than “Born in the U.S.A.,” though: they write of good hearts turned to stone, and a vacant promise “from sea to shining sea.” At the same time, though, the Arcade Fire-sounding drums and big guitars also inspire: they make you want to believe that the chorus’ iconic phrase actually means something.
The real antecedent for Wrecking Ball isn’t Born in the U.S.A., but Springsteen’s most compelling album of the 2000s: We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. That album featured 13 boisterous reinterpretations of songs that Pete Seeger made famous, such as “Jesse James” and “John Henry,” with a sound drawing on the Celtic folk tradition: Irish sensibilities performed with fiddles, acoustic guitars and big, stompin’ drums. The project was so successful artistically (if not commercially) that Springsteen even took the Seeger Sessions band on tour, dropping in a couple of his own songs brilliantly reinterpreted (such as Nebraska’s “Atlantic City”) and even contributing a new, original song in the style (“American Land”) that the E Street Band adopted on the Working on a Dream tour.
On Wrecking Ball—largely recorded without the E Street Band—Springsteen fuses the Seeger Sessions sound into his own. It’s most noticeable in “Death to My Hometown,” a gigantic sounding tin whistle-and-keys anthem that wouldn’t be out of place in the Dropkick Murphys catalogue. But the entire album seems fused a kitchen-party folk aesthetic, particularly in the drums: the thing thunders along, with a real foot-stomping flavour. Springsteen actually uses electronic drums at several points, but these only serve to reinforce the album’s forward-driving rhythms. Tracks like “Shackled and Drawn” and “We Are Alive” sound like true guitar-strumming, heart-stirring anthems of the downtrodden.
And no, that’s not a contradiction: the Irish-inspired folk tradition is defined by a willingness to bring big, catchy singalongs to bear on hard times. It’s a sensibility that’s less about denying the harshness of poverty and neglect, but a sonic celebration of the righteousness of being wronged. Like much of Nebraska, the characters on Wrecking Ball aren’t wrong themselves, but have had wrong done upon them: by the banks and businessmen, by the powers that be, by circumstances beyond their control. And while the sadness and despair of Nebraska is a perfectly valid response to those sorts of circumstances, there’s also a place in tragedy for righteousness, for a chorus to rise up from below to say we know how the world oughta work.
In fusing the Seeger Sessions sound into his aesthetic, Springsteen brings a righteous noise to bear on the trials of the times. His characters—abused, broken and neglected—aren’t denying their circumstances, but nor are they denying themselves of a song to sing along to. Their anthems are prideful because they know, in their broken heart of hearts, what their country is supposed to be.
All of which is to say that I enjoy Wrecking Ball a great deal, to the point where it may be my favourite Springsteen album since Tunnel of Love. It lags a bit in its ballads—“Jack of All Trades” reads better than it sounds, and “You Got It” is wholly forgettable—but it’s certainly a nice break from the stagnation that Springsteen’s 2000s material (Seeger Sessions aside) ended up in. A three-album collaboration with producer Brendan O’Brien returned The Boss to the spotlight, but there were diminishing sonic returns in his wall of sound, and 2009’s Working on a Dream was an outright dud. (If not for Human Touch, it would be Springsteen’s worst.) On Wrecking Ball, though, Springsteen offers up some sonic novelty—from the beats and haunting vocals of “Rocky Ground” to the big horns of “Wrecking Ball”—while still making a “Springsteenian” album that the E Street Band can surely rock the shit out of on tour.
Best of all, he retains my favourite part of 2000s Springsteen: the spiritualism. One of the reasons why The Rising is one of the only truly successful pieces of 9/11 pop culture reflection is that Springsteen responded not with pander, or blind patriotism, but gospel. On songs like “Into the Fire,” “Lonesome Day,” the title track and “My City of Ruins”—not written about the attacks, but which gained resonance when he first played it on the Tribute to Heroes telethon—Springsteen’s musical quest for understanding was not about fact or fiction, but faith. Even as someone who’s not a remotely a spiritual person, I was moved by the idea that belief—in something larger than ourselves, be it man or maker—was how we pull through uncertain times.
A few years before The Rising, Springsteen wrote “Land of Hope and Dreams,” one of two new songs the E Street Band band played regularly on its 1999 reunion tour. It’s since become a live staple, and I’d often wondered why it never found its way onto any of Springsteen’s subsequent albums. The answer, clearly, was that it was waiting for its right moment: after all of of the righteous fury on Wrecking Ball has been spoken, and when the possibility of salvation is most needed.
I confess that my heart skipped a beat more than once listening to Wrecking Ball’s “Land.” The first was when its glorious organ rushed into my headphones, and when its big, four-on-the-floor Weinberg beat kicked in. The second was when, in contrast to the live version, Springsteen pulls out much of the accompaniment in the first verse, focusing the listener on his initial description of his freedom train. And the third was when Clarence Clemons’ final saxophone performance hit me like a hammer.
So far, I’m booked to see Springsteen three times this year: once in Boston at the end of this month, then twice in Los Angeles. And even though I’ve only seen him once before, part of me is already dreading the absence on stage right of “The Big Man.” But as a devotee, I also genuinely believe the sentiment that Bruce expressed in Clarence’s eulogy: “Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.”
What’s so compelling about the E Street mythos is the band of brothers motif, the idea that it’s through our fellow men and women that we confront the walls that the world throws in front of us, be our choice to climb, to crush or to choose to walk away. True faith isn’t just about a higher power: it’s about the power of each other.
And that’s why “Land” has become one of the E Street Band’s great moments: it’s about how everyone—“saints and sinners,” “losers and winners,” “whores and gamblers,” “lost souls”—deserves a chance for salvation. On Wrecking Ball’s final song and coda, “We Are Alive,” a tale of railroad workers and fallen patriots, Springsteen sings: “Our spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark / To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”
Even when we’re at our lowest point, that’s how we hold it together: “shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart.”