by Ray Waddell, Billboard.com
There will be those that believe a millionaire rock star singing about poor people & hard work, as Bruce Springsteen so passionately does on his powerful new album “Wrecking Ball,” to be the height of hypocrisy. But to do so would be both shortsighted & uninformed. First, as a pedigreed Jersey shore rat raised in economically depressed Freehold, N.J., Springsteen knows a thing or two about economic frustration. And, secondly, anyone who has seen Springsteen perform at any one of thousands of shows over the past 40 years, with or without his E Street Band, is well aware that he packs his lunch pail every night & welcomes overtime.
“Wrecking Ball,” Springsteen’s 17th studio album, finds the artist exploring familiar working class territory, but with a vigor and fearlessness not seen since 2002’s equally-inspired “The Rising.” Produced by Springsteen with Ron Aniello, the characters that populate most of the album’s 11 tracks are generally having a pretty tough go of it, to say the least. While sometimes not above contemplating crime & murder, as with the anti-heroes in 1980’s thematically similar “Nebraska” would have opted, the protagonists of “Wrecking Ball” more often just want to put in an honest day’s work. With its gritty portrayal of the danger at hand when lives are lived on the edge of collapse, “Wrecking Ball” does indeed recall “Nebraska,” though the newer record is far more complex musically & more pointed in its observations.
There is a pervasive element of desperation in “Wrecking Ball,” but nobody here is giving up. “Hold tight to your anger,” Springsteen snarls on the title cut. The characters here seek self-respect & purpose, & they maintain their pride if not always their identity. “Stand back, son, & let a man work” Springsteen advises in the pounding “Shackled And Drawn,” & the inability to do so provides the backdrop for the album’s primary struggle. Bankers & other vaguely-defined power brokers draw ire, & the tender ballad “Jack Of All Trades” becomes decidedly less tender as the song draws to a close, with the singer expressing an unnerving willingness to “shoot the b_____ds on sight.”
This is Springsteen with his work boots on, & the music on “Wrecking Ball” follows suit, alternating between loud, percussive, Seeger Sessions-on-steroids romps & steely, subdued dirges, with detours in a wide range of directions. The sound blends contemporary production with familiar Springsteen-esque guitars & drums, while varied influences including gospel, blues, country & even rap surface throughout, often in unexpected ways.
More than anything, “Wrecking Ball” is a record with heart. Worth noting in the liners is the artist’s poignant tribute to his longtime band mate Clarence Clemons, the beloved E Street Band sax man who died last year. This should be considered Springsteen’s definitive take on the Big Man’s legacy, proclaimed here as “Too f____n’ big to die.”