The Boss’ Uneven But Powerful Wrecking Ball

Bruce Springsteen’s newest album is sometimes glorious, sometimes gloomy, and occasionally glib.

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 defiant—bring 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 the song:

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 sure

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 “Rocky Ground”?

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 spark

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 vague—Springsteen 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 else—not 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-man—mowing 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 politicians—even 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 protect him?

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 long.

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 cross—but 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 level—though 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.

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About Mark Sullivan 0 Articles
Mark Sullivan is a songwriter and guitarist living in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the co-author, with Mike Aquilina, of St. Monica and the Power of Persistent Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013).