The Boss has always had an uneasy relationship with fame—not so much the celebrity aspect, but the wealth. Singing about the American working class made him wealthy, which in turn distanced him from his own subject. On every album since 1984’s legendary Born in the USA, Springsteen has worked visibly hard to maintain those ties to his roots, and a few misfires aside, he’s managed to make some meaningful music through sheer determination and earnestness. Ten years ago The Rising turned out to be exactly the album the country needed after 9/11, and more recently The Seeger Sessions revisited old public domain tunes as a means of underscoring the social—perhaps even the socialist—nature of American popular music.
Springsteen evokes that pair of late-career highlights on Wrecking Ball, which has the rousing boisterousness of Sessions and the unflagging sense of self-determination of The Rising. It could use a bit more of the former and less of the latter. As with most artists who’ve taken up protest music in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, Springsteen makes no room for humor or specificity, writing lyrics that nod to everyman characters but speak in the generalized language of “This Land Is Your Land” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He even mentions robber barons at one point. Guthrie and Dylan could get away with it, but Springsteen has never been one for loftiness. His best songs operate at street level. To the extent that this type of rhetoric sounds at all natural or compelling out of his mouth, Wrecking Ball works only because it doesn’t represent any of kind of plot twist in the greater Springsteen narrative: Despite that nickname, the Boss has always been a great lefty. The recent financial meltdown, with its cast of sympathetic victims (the entire middle class) and easy villains (predatory banks), didn’t provide him a subject so much as it simply loosed all of his outrage.
Of course, these days Springsteen comes by his outrage not through actual experience, but through music. Unlike Todd Snider or the Drive-By Truckers, he can’t conceive of protest or topical music that’s not rooted strictly in Dust Bowl folk. That makes for some bluntly obvious moments like “Jack of All Trades” and “This Depression,” with its obligatory Tom Morello guitar solo, but it also makes for some stirring numbers like “Shackled and Drawn” and “Death to My Hometown.” And yes, that’s a shotgun blast on “Death to My Hometown,” which is one of two songs that find Springsteen singing about literal class warfare. The song is a dark sequel to “My Hometown,” ostensibly indicting the very big-box store that will no doubt be selling Wrecking Ball in small towns, although the song is vague enough that anything could be killing his hometown—greedy bankers, anti-union advocates, biker gangs, aliens. That shotgun blast conveys the incredibly high stakes more effectively than any of Springsteen’s lyrics.
Wrecking Ball sounds like a very expensive record, the musical equivalent of a $40,000 umbrella holder, and that certainly complicates some of his political and social stances. Ron Aniello’s production is crowded and busy, substituting a string section where a simple fiddle would suffice and bringing in numerous choirs to represent the huddled masses yearning to be free. It’s exactly the opposite of the loose-ends desperation Springsteen conveys in the lyrics, so thematically the record is one big contradiction. How long till the Boss guts his Cabinet and works with someone like John Congleton or Mark Nevers, either of whom could work wonders with the sprawling E Street Band?
In some ways, the too-slick production on Wrecking Ball is a scrim that allows Springsteen to compensate for his social detachment from his working-class subjects while perhaps convincing himself that he’s giving the people what they want—a big rock record. But who asked for sanctimonious gospel music from the Boss? With its full choir, tame programmed beat, and lazily rapped bridge, “Rocky Ground” may be the worst thing he’s done since “57 Channels (And Nothing On),” which you’ll know is saying a lot if you’ve heard “Queen of the Supermarket.” On its second half, the album’s rousing bluster and intimations of uprising eventually curdle into a self-righteousness that whiffs of exploitation.
If you really want to hear a great album about where the country stands at this very moment, you’d do worse than to revisit Born in the USA. You might have to substitute Iraq for Vietnam, Restrepo for Khe Sanh, but it retains all its anger and lust and humor and worry even a quarter-century after its release. Almost without trying—or at least without showing any signs of strain—Springsteen balanced hardscrabble realities with rock ‘n’ roll fun. Wrecking Ball, on the other hand, is so serious in its mission to document the current crisis that it’ll likely sink faster than the Republican nominee once the economy recovers and the crisis passes.