Reviewing Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball”

I should start this review by admitting that I’m an unabashedly huge Springsteen fan. Along with Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, he rounds out the trio of my all-time favorite American songwriters. For an extended explanation by a reviewer that feels similarly, see Kevin Norton’s post at No Depression. To me, Bruce is the voice of the American everyman, able to capture in easily accessible song the full range of human experience — love, lust, anger, sadness, disappointment, indignation (the latter four being the focus of Wrecking Ball). That said, while Bruce has been prolific and brilliant in his output, he has also at times been wildly inconsistent. The last decade has been no exception.

My expectations for Wrecking Ball were tempered by experience with Bruce’s output since 2002’s The Rising. The man has been writing and recording at a steady clip, and major music reviewers like Rolling Stone have offered nothing but accolades. I think I speak for a lot of Springsteen fans though when I say that recent albums haven’t always been deserving of the comparisons they receive to such classics as Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. He’s put out some great tunes recently, no doubt, but he’s also put out some absolute clunkers. I have to admit I didn’t even buy his last album of new material, Working on a Dream, after listening to the album preview on NPR. It just didn’t pass muster for what I expect from the Boss.

Thankfully, Wrecking Ball proves to be a strong offering. It’s an angry record, taking aim at Wall Street and voicing the righteous indignation of working Americans who feel put out by a political and economic system seemingly beyond their control. Heavy stuff, but certainly not new territory for Springsteen. We’ve been here before, with records like Born in the USA and Nebraska. But these are new songs for a new era of dispossession and discontent.

The album blends in elements from the past ten years, including the driving rock rhythms of The Rising and folksy Irish strains from The Seeger Sessions. For the most part, Bruce keeps the songs simple and to the point, which helps maintain the album’s focus and pace. It’s not necessarily his best writing, but it’s still strong.

The only missteps come when he detours too far from his musical roots. Why would you set a tune to electronic beats when you can call on Max Weinberg to lay down a solid and more distinctive groove? Why bring in the effects-heavy guitar shredding of Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine fame), when Bruce himself — or better yet E-Street Band lead guitarist Nils Lofgren — can crank out melodic and bluesy leads? While I’m not against electronic music or (especially) Tom Morello, the inclusion of these elements on Wrecking Ball just sounds forced and winds up detracting from what counts most — the song and the message it is trying to convey. As with all of Bruce’s albums over the past ten years, I find the overall production values a little too polished and processed. The great thing about classic albums like Born in the USA was they at least partly captured the essence of Bruce’s live persona and sound, which unfortunately has not been the case with the slick production of pretty much every album since 2001 besides The Seeger Sessions.

All that said, Wrecking Ball is definitely worth the time, especially if you are already a Springsteen fan. If new to the Boss, I would suggesting starting further back in the catalog, and only picking up Wrecking Ball after going through some of the classic albums name-dropped throughout this review. Then buy Wrecking Ball and find out why Springsteen, even at 62, can still out-write, out-sing, and out-rock pretty much everyone else on the modern airwaves.

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