Album review: Bruce Springsteen, ‘Wrecking Ball’ (Columbia)

February 28, 2012

Always an extremely catholic artist in every sense of that word, like many Americans, Bruce Springsteen is becoming increasingly religious as he grows older. (He’ll be 63 in September.) Therein lies a big part of the enduring problem for this agnostic and former Jersey homeboy: Times as tough as these, the subject of the singer and songwriter’s 17th studio album, require a lot more than platitudes about salvation coming to those who keep the faith and love thy brother. And all of his righteous anger about the “robber barons” who’ve sullied “the land of hope and dreams” in his incessant mythologizing—“If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight,” claims the would-be gavone whose mansion is just down the block from Tony Soprano’s—ultimately rings hollow exactly because his ideals are so rose-colored unrealistic and Norman Rockwell-phony.

There just ain’t an ounce of punk in this guy. And even if one accepts the fundamental tenets of the Church of Bruce, it’s easier to believe that the real Boss helps those who help themselves rather than those who clap and pound their feet in time to O Brother Where Art Thou? campfire sing-alongs, raising their voices to “the sun in the heavens” while spouting a lot of rousing hokum about “a new day’s rising” and “the bells of freedom ringing.”

Jesus, spare us. Please!

Though he’ll be touring with the E Street Band this spring—minus, of course, Clarence Clemons, who makes his final and thus emotional appearance on two tracks here—most of the usual gang was missing in the studio. In their place are the folkies from the Seeger Sessions Band, with stray guest shots from Libertyville native Tom Morello, Matt Chamberlain and singer Michelle Moore (the latter on a completely out-of-place rap in “Rocky Ground”). Not that it matters: That big, brash but hollow E Street wall of sound is in ample evidence, particularly as it’s mutated on the new-millennial efforts The Rising (2002), Magic (2007) and Working on a Dream (2009).

For all the talk of producer Ron Aniello fleshing out what started as Nebraska-style solo acoustic ditties with modern electronics, more than a few samples of gospel testifying and the stray looped field holler are needed to make this Moby’s Play. The dominant sounds are redundant foot-stomping rhythms (except on the slower songs, which just plod); spirited geetar-strumming; those tinkling E Street bells; bleating trumpet where previously we’d have had the Big Man’s sax, and most of all a lot of generic St. Paddy’s day bar-band blarney. Bruce even fakes an Irish accent amid the Celtic pipes on the green-beer hootenanny “Death to My Hometown,” while in the lyrics he channels his inner Ken Burns to bemoan a different kind of Civil War.

“No cannonballs did fly/No rifles cut us down… But just as sure as the hand of God/They brought death to my hometown.”

Who is this villainous “they,” you ask? Why, the “robber barons,” of course! (Cheapest ticket price for Springsteen at Madison Square Garden in April: $87.20 with Ticketmaster service fees. But never mind.) “The greedy thieves that came around/And ate the flesh of everything they found/Whose crimes have gone unpunished now.” Oy, we live in such an unjust world. But we need not despair, Springsteen tells us… again, and again and again.

We take care of our own/Wherever this flag's flown,” the artist howls on the first single. “We are alive!/And though our spirits rise, they carry a fire and light the spark,” he croaks in the Irish-wake album-closer. In between, he notes: “Hard times come and hard times go” (“Wrecking Ball”); “The banker man grows fat/The working man grows thin/It’s all happened before/And it’ll happen again” (“Jack of All Trades”); “The morning sun is breaking” (“This Depression”) and “the angels are shouting ‘Glory Hallelujah’” (“Rocky Ground”), and best of all there’s room for all of us—“saints and sinners, losers and winners, whores and gamblers, midnight ramblers”—on “this train” to the “Land of Hopes and Dreams.”

Whoo-whee! Sounds like a heck of a party, but I’ve crashed it before only to be let down long before the preacher-man passed the collection plate, so I’ll find my kicks, revelations and much-needed musical catharses in these days of Romney rising and Santorum surging in the alley out back behind the station, thank you very much, amen.

Rating on the four-star scale: 1 star.