This post is in partnership with Consequence of Sound, an online music publication devoted to the ever growing and always thriving worldwide music scene.
When Bruce Springsteen announced that his new album, Wrecking Ball, would contain somewhat out-of-character sonic touches such as loops, electronic percussion and — gasp! — hip-hop, fans and critics alike had good reason to be skeptical. The Boss’s musical experiments have never been as head-scratchingly risky or weird as, say, Neil Young’s, but they’ve often yielded equally mixed results. Whereas the haunting acoustics and bleak outlook of Nebraska were a welcome change, the similarly minded The Ghost of Tom Joad resulted in a pretty boring record, despite a handful of choice cuts.
In later years, for every “Good Eye” there was a “Queen of the Supermarket,” for every “Mary’s Place” a “Worlds Apart,” with its awkwardly shoehorned Middle Eastern chanting and sitar. On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen incorporates more outside sounds, but with a restraint that (with the exception of one misstep) highlights the songs instead of overwhelming them. Think of a toned-down Seeger Sessions with the best production elements of Human Touch. Bells and whistles aside, it’s still a Bruce Springsteen record, and that’s why it works; an album chock-full of heartland rock that details economic crises and spirituality with equal gusto.
(LIST: All-TIME 100 Songs)
Opener and leadoff single “We Take Care of Our Own” questions America’s collective hospitality behind an engine-bowel chug that reflects the Boss’s newfound camaraderie with fellow Jerseyites the Gaslight Anthem. “Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” he asks in lyrics that turns a national phrase on its head in a similar fashion to lyrics in “Born in the U.S.A.” The Wall Street indictment “Easy Money” prances along with an Irish-flavored fiddle yet still rollicks with gruff yelps and extra stomp provided by, yes, those unnecessarily feared drum loops. “Shackled and Drawn” could have easily been a solo outing reminiscent of Woody Guthrie (it still would have been great) but is elevated to barn-burning elation thanks to a powerhouse backing choir, Charlie Giordano’s undulating accordion and street-preaching samples.
While several of Wrecking Ball‘s detractors believe the record’s themes of financial claustrophobia would have been better represented by a bleak, stripped-down aesthetic (the album was originally conceived as having a similar sound to Nebraska), they fail to realize the songs’ inklings of hope. The working-class waltz “Jack of All Trades” sees a couple making do in days characterized by “blood and treasure” thanks to their own strength and resourcefulness. In another example of how Springsteen tempers the album’s outside elements, guest guitar virtuoso Tom Morello — who could have melted “Jack of All Trades’ ” working-class waltz into a soup of effects-pedal flamboyance — remains silent during the piano-driven melancholia of the verses before creeping in with a yearning, slow-burn solo at the climax. He outfits “This Depression” in spacy murk two tracks later, leaving plenty of room for Springsteen’s hollow strumming and pleas for a lover’s companionship during financial turmoil.
The title track and “Land of Hope and Dreams,” the latter an E Street live staple, serve as the album’s full-band showcases. The former’s gritty imagery of poverty among the Jersey swamps (“where mosquitoes grow as big as airplanes”) transforms into a rallying cry for perseverance after a blast of mariachi horns kicks in, while the latter bursts with a final saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons that reminds listeners of how much they’ll miss getting floored by his windy growl. The live version of “Hopes and Dreams” from The Essential Bruce Springsteen still packs a bigger punch, but the scaled-back instrumentation and added gospel vocals endow it with a more emotional resonance that’s nonetheless interesting.
The only time Springsteen’s expanded sound falters is during “Rocky Ground,” which is anchored by a rap verse written by himself and recited by Michelle Moore. While it’s nice to see the Boss veering into new musical territory, hip-hop simply doesn’t suit his style. When rapped, the song’s depiction of hardship and prayer comes off as clunky and vague, reminiscent of some of the more awkward lyrics from Working on a Dream, an album that admittedly hasn’t aged well.
But as a whole, Wrecking Ball displays Springsteen’s refusal to coast. While many of his peers are content to rehash pleasant-sounding standards and play nothing but greatest hits as they settle into their 60s and beyond, the Boss continues to explore rock ‘n’ roll that sounds as good in a church as it does in a stadium. With its equal dose of powerful hooks and characters pushing through hard times, Wrecking Ball suggests there might not even be a difference.
Essential Tracks: “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Wrecking Ball,” “Land of Hopes and Dreams”
CONSEQUENCE OF SOUND: Bruce Springsteen — 40 Years, 40 Tracks
TIME ARCHIVES: Bruce Springsteen, Rock’s New Sensation (Oct. 27, 1975)