Bruce Springsteen has always been whomever he wanted with little regard to how others perceived him. Tapes from his early performances in the ’70s show a scrawny, mercurial collection of poorly recorded pixels shamelessly rambling with the clearly affected mannerisms of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. In the ’80s, he became equal parts Rambo and lonesome cowboy on “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Tunnel of Love.” Recently, the 62-year-old rock star has undergone yet another mutation away from the sheen of his late 20th-century work and toward the ramshackle style of early American folk singers. He’s cropped his hair close and donned a tight vest that makes him look like a folk doctor of suspect miracle cures in the Wild West. On his most recent album, “Wrecking Ball,” he completes his transformation into an American folk hero and attempts to take on the recent economic downturn with all the vitriol and grizzled longing his years allow. The album, while at times overblown and shabbily executed, still possesses great energy and enthusiasm and manages to muster some of the old E Street Magic that has stayed constant throughout his career.
Perhaps it is unfair to expect subtlety from an album entitled “Wrecking Ball.” Springsteen, a proponent of the dense Wall of Sound production method, delivers his new, folkier sound in a paradoxically blown-up production. If anything, the production on this album is more like a larger, now-crumbling wall of sound. New tonal flavors—like the liberally used fiddle and mandolin—accompany the centerpiece of Max Weinberg’s thunderous drums. Many of the tracks involve rowdy background singers that seem intended to give an “authentic” feel to Springsteen’s workingman’s romps. For instance, “Easy Money” rises to a celebratory hoedown, with fiddlers stomping behind a choir that sounds like it was recorded in a pub. “You put on your coat I’ll / Put on my hat / You put out the dog I’ll / Put out the cat,” sings Springsteen. This is an admirable attempt at modernized Depression-era folk protest music, but between the lazy lyricism and the cluttered production, the song comes across as forced.
Lyrics are a persistent problem on the record. Classic lines like “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man / And I believe in the promised land”—from 1978’s “Promised Land”—carefully walked the border between universality and triteness because Springsteen snuck them into keenly observed character studies and narratives. The lyrics of “Wrecking Ball” are embarrassingly earnest. On “Land of Hope and Dreams,” Springsteen sings the line “Big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams / Meet me in a land of hope and dreams” twice. Lyrics like these can push an otherwise good, if gratuitous, song toward ridiculousness.
Despite these shortcomings, “Wrecking Ball” provides more glimpses of Springsteen’s former majesty than many of his recent efforts. The title track, which was written for the razing of Giants Stadium, conjures surprising pathos despite using football as a central metaphor for life. Otherwise cringe-inducing lines like “If you’ve got the guts, mister / Yeah if you’ve got the balls” seem like genuine assertions of character when coupled with the mighty refrain “Bring on yer wrecking ball.” The track powers its way through each triumphant build, bursting into horn-driven, double-time segments—always cued by Springsteen’s immortal count-offs—and pulling back to epic washes of distorted chords that are matched only by Springsteen’s own defiant bellow. Though this is an undeniably indulgent number, its own obvious faith in the redemption of rock and roll is enough to spur it on.
The album succeeds in spite of its excess because it recalls Springsteen’s best qualities, even if it only rarely achieves them. He’s called it his “angriest” album, but the E Street Band is having far too much fun on these tracks to come near the bare anger of Springsteen’s “Nebraska.” All the paradoxes and shortcomings of the album are embodied in the climax, “Land of Hope and Dreams.” The song begins with absurd gospel belting accompanied by a portentous church organ. After several measures of an ’80s drum machine lower expectations even further, Springsteen’s guitar thrills with the power of the titular wrecking ball and ushers in martial drum rolls and a whirling rock organ. The group launches into a celebratory riff that ably expresses the song’s message of redemption. In a chilling moment, the late Clarence Clemons’s saxophone roars into a solo reminiscent of “Jungleland” to guide the track to its end. This last unheard recording suggests that, though Clemons may be gone, his gut-wrenching solos remain. Similarly, “Wrecking Ball” ably reminds of all the reasons Springsteen deserves the folk-hero treatment, even if it breaks no new ground.
—Staff writer Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.