I can’t remember the last time I
listened to an album with such suspicion. With arms folded, I was ready to be
annoyed, hit the skip button, and then rant about how Springsteen has lost it.
In the back of my mind, I hoped that Springsteen made another album like The Rising
, which was animated by
Christianity from the inside. It drew a message of hope and redemption from the
tragic events of 9/11. My biggest fear was that Wrecking Ball
would be a manifesto of liberal politics, and I would
grow disgusted and then get rid of all my Springsteen records.
The main theme of Wrecking Ball is the recession, and it
works when Springsteen imagines the spiritual struggles that his characters go
through as they face aging, parenting, economic uncertainty, and death. It
brings the characters to life. It also doesn’t hurt when Springsteen has
biographical ties to the subjects at hand.
The title track is a metaphor for
the passage of time that turns all of us into dust. The song is written from
the perspective of the old Giants Stadium before it was destroyed. “All our
little victories and glories have turned into parking lots,” he sings. But
instead of being defeated his attitude is defiantbring it on. The human spirit
will not be defeated.
The attitude of defiance is most
carefully articulated by drummer Max Weinberg, who unfortunately appears on
only two tracks. “Wrecking Ball” has a signature Springsteen moment. The song
begins with him singing over the strumming of a single electric guitar.
Instruments are added one at a time through the first two verses and choruses.
On the second verse and chorus Weinberg keeps time only on his bass drum,
building tension until Springsteen counts off the band, “Two, three, four,”
leading to a furious drum roll as the horns kick in and the song sails off into
the instrumental break. In the ending refrain he keeps repeating, “Hard times
come and hard times go.” Maybe it’s a guy thing, but it gives me the chills.
You have to pump your fist and say, “Yeah, Bruce.”
Another highlight is “Rocky Ground,”
which features gospel singer Michelle Moore. It’s the urban flavor on the album
complete with samples, drum loops, and a rap passage. Honestly, the first few
times I listened to the album I hit the skip button on this track. I thought it
was a joke. After the introduction, the music shifts around his voice and it
becomes a recognizable Springsteen song. Springsteen’s first words are, “Rise
up shepherd, rise up, your flock has roamed.” The one time I wasn’t able to
skip button, it occurred to me: Could this song be about parenting? As a
parent, is the singer identifying with Jesus as the Good Shepard trying to tend
to his flock? Is the urban music and the rap a parent reaching out to a child
through their style of music? I was struck in particular by the rap portion of
You use your muscle and your mind
and you pray your best
that your best is good enough,
the Lord will do the rest
you raise your children and you
teach them to walk straight and
you pray that hard times, hard
times come no more
you try to sleep you toss and
turn the bottom’s dropping out
where once you had faith now
there’s only doubt
you pray for guidance only
silence now meets your prayers
the morning breaks, you awake,
but no one’s there.
As with most of the songs on the
album, there is an ambiguity that leaves the song open for interpretation,
which I think is deliberate in order to make the songs personal yet universal.
Pop songs usually don’t mention raising kids, so it’s a detail that stands out.
It also resonates because much of Springsteen’s earlier work dealt with his
conflicted relationship with his father. Springsteen used to introduce his song
“Independence Day” with a long monologue about how he used to fight with his
father, but how his father showed his love to him by his reaction to Bruce
failing his draft physical.
I love the image of Springsteen as
the worried parent. If other critics have interpreted the first single from the
album, “We Take Care of Our Own,” as Springsteen’s indictment of the Republican
Party’s opposition to universal health care without a shred of evidence from
the song to support their interpretation, why can’t I see the parental Bruce in
He ends the album with “We Are
Alive,” a meditation of sorts on the communion of saints. The song is set in a
graveyard, and the voices of the dead sing the chorus:
We are alive
and though are bodies lie
alone here in the dark
our spirits rise
to carry the fire and light the
to stand shoulder to shoulder and
heart to heart.
The musical arrangement is lifted
directly from “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash. (It’s documented in the credits.) The
song also draws some of its dramatic power from the death of Clarence Clemmons,
Springsteen’s longtime friend and sax player in the E-Street Band. Springsteen
writes in the credits of the album, “Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band
when he dies. He leaves when we die.” The album ends with a message
of hope about the human soul being immortal, and not on some lesser platitude.
The songs I’ve just mentioned are
tracks 7, 9, and 11 on the album. Actually, the whole second half of the album
has continued to grow on me with each listen. It’s the first half of the album
that has gotten increasingly annoying. The characters that run through “Easy
Money,” “Shackled and Drawn,” “Jack of All Trades,” and “Death to My Hometown”
are the victims of the greedy fat-cat bankers who destroy jobs and towns. It’s
“us” against “them.” We (us) are the “99 percent” of the population who are
good folks just looking for honest work, doing odd jobs, cutting grass, and
fixing roofs. The greedy fat-cat bankers are completely vagueSpringsteen
hasn’t supplied a single detail to make them come to life. When I think of all
the small-time crooks he’s described eloquently over the years, it’s
disappointing that he couldn’t do the same for big-time crooks.
The victims don’t have much detail
to bring them to life either, and the detail that is them restricts them to
poorly-educated, blue-collar workers. The “99 percent” is made up of much more
than blue-collar workers.
But the real problem is that these
characters suffer because of the actions of someone elsenot themselves and not
the government. The causes of a recession are complicated. If blame is going to
be assigned it needs to be shared among the individual, the state, economic
cycles, and yes, those bloodthirsty fat-cat bankers.
The album has a pretty creepy
moment. The character in “Jack of All Trades” is the typical handy-manmowing
lawns, mending roofs, and so forth. His refrain is, “Honey, we’ll be alright.” In
the last verse, the character, “Jack,” dreams of shooting the banker-man who
grows fat while he grows thin. The song has a long, slow guitar solo as a coda
to let the message sink in. It’s set up to be the emotional center of the
album. It’s an ambiguous line between frustration and communism.
But what if “Jack” doesn’t think
the banker-man is the problem, but the politicianseven the President? Uh-oh.
Do I hear backtracking?
“Jack of All Trades” is the low
point of the album. Springsteen would have done well to leave that for the next
decade’s out-takes album. Suddenly, the country and folk arrangements and
instrumentation on “Easy Money” and “Shackled and Drawn” start to sound
condescending. Is Springsteen really taking up the cause of the common man, or
just looking down on him as ignorant and helpless and in need of someone to
The other real puzzler is “Death
to My Home Town.” It starts of with a large African choir vibe and then
switches over to rocked-up Irish music reminiscent of the Pogues; he sings the
song like he’s trying to imitate Shane MacGowan. “They” are the anonymous, greedy,
flesh-eating thieves who go unpunished that bring death to his hometown. But
aren’t we all greedy, flesh-eating thieves? Should I remind Springsteen that we
all have hungry hearts? That we are all capable of going out for a ride and
never coming back? Springsteen understands what it’s like to live with original
sin. It’s one of the things that has made his music worth listening to for so
In the course of preparing for
this review, I went back and listened to The
Rising, which was released 10 years ago this July. Besides understanding
original sin, Springsteen also understands what it is to be redeemed. The Rising doesn’t get the respect it
deserves as a triumph in popular music.
After 9/11, Springsteen says a
stranger stopped him and said, “We need you.” Inspired by conversations that
he’d had with families of the victims of 9/11, he began to work on The Rising. Some of the songs from that
album“Lonesome Day,” “Into the Fire,” “The Rising,” and “My City’s In
Ruins”turn the tragedy of 9/11 into a message of hope and salvation. It’s a
Christian perspective on 9/11.
Springsteen saw the cops and the
firemen who died on 9/11 trying to rescue others as martyrs, “called some place
higher.” Their sacrifice is a source of renewal for the rest of us left behind.
The chorus of “Into the Fire” captures the message:
May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love.
The Rising is clearly a Christian-influenced
album. Catholic images abound precious blood, Mary, wearing a crossbut he’s
not hitting you over the head with it. On The
Rising, the Christian aspect is subtle, ambiguous, and personal. There are
gaps in the lyrics that leave them open to interpretation. Is he talking about
God or a lover? If the listener wants to connect the dots and read Christian
aspects into the songs, they are there. (I know that sounds very 1960s, but I
wasn’t alive then. Also, you don’t call an album The Rising if you want an atheistic interpretation.) If not, the
album works on a secular levelthough it becomes not quite as deep.
Any Catholic artist looking to
engage popular culture should take note. Yes. It can be hard when Springsteen
gets involved in politics and promotes positions contrary to the Church’s
teaching. But as Springsteen has said often in recent interviews, “once a
Catholic, always a Catholic.” He admits that it is something he struggles with.
If he’s capable of making The Rising,
he deserves a listen. Let’s hope he continues his struggle to full communion
with the Church.