Forget Pitchfork’s inability to forget the shadow of Nebraska. Forget Rolling Stone’s five-star stamp of approval. Forget Jim DiRogatis’s whine in dog-pitch that Springsteen’s not punk enough for him (in fact, forget that Jim DiRogatis exists at all). Even forget the AV Club’s well-reasoned B+ review. Listen only to me. Because I’m here to tell you….this is the big one.
Wrecking Ball is Bruce Springsteen’s best album since Born in the U.S.A.
Ever since Springsteen took over the world with Born in the U.S.A., we’ve been waiting for him to complete a worthy follow-up. Born in the U.S.A. is a great album — it’s far from his best, but it’s an insistent, driving, fun album that won him over literally millions of new fans. Almost immediately, he began throwing those fans curveballs. BITUSA’s immediate follow-up, Tunnel of Love, is a decided about-face, an album that barely uses the mighty E Street Band and takes a shot at themes of love, bitterness and maturity. It’s a very good, underappreciated album, but it’s also a clear step down from the heights Springsteen reached in the prior decade.
Then the Boss really went into the wilderness. He broke up his band, and the ensuing two solo albums — the simultaneously released Human Touch and Lucky Town — had fans and critics scratching their heads and wondering why. Next came the folkie, amelodic The Ghost of Tom Joad, a worthy and heartfelt experiment but no match for Nebraska in the Springsteen-alone-in-a-dark-room genre. After years of inactivity, Springsteen then reunited the E Streeters for a massive tour, followed by a return to the studio for The Rising, a good album that runs a few songs too long and at times becomes too entangled in its 9/11 theme.
The Rising ushered in a new era of creative output for Springsteen after a lengthy fallow period in the ’90s. Devils and Dust expands on the sound of Joad, but fails to have a compelling central idea or (for the most part) good songs. The Seeger Sessions is swinging fun, but it’s nothing more than a covers album. Magic was Springsteen’s strongest work in years, but he followed that up with the Brian Wilson and Phil Spector-chasing silliness of Working on a Dream. During his late-career Renaissance, Springsteen never failed to disappoint in concert, but his albums never matched the intensity or quality of his live show. Which brings us back to Wrecking Ball.
28 years. Nine studio albums. And we’re finally here: the next great Springsteen album.
All of the press surrounding Wrecking Ball has focused on its chief lyrical theme: the current recession/depression and the gross economic equality that caused it. And that’s fine: it’s an easy, timely hook to use when discussing the album. But it’s missing the point. Springsteen has tackled big topics and released albums bordering on “concept” before: Tunnel of Love, Tom Joad, and The Rising all fit that bill, and most of his other albums have some centering idea.
What sets Wrecking Ball apart is the ferocity and the focus of the music. Springsteen sounds like he learned valuable lessons from the Seeger Sessions album and tour, in which he played with a band comprised mostly of non-E Street residents. When Springsteen first broke up the E Street Band, he did so because he wanted to branch out and play with different types of musicians, and learn some new tricks. Instead, he gathered a group of slick session musicians who sounded exactly like the E Street Band but without the passion or energy.
But with the Seeger Sessions band, Springsteen finally learned how to incorporate sounds into his music that weren’t taken directly from the classic rock palette. He also learned how to strut in a different way: the new songs carry a different kind of momentum that his earlier purely guitar-driven work like “Born to Run” and “Darlington County.”
Those advances pay off on Wrecking Ball. “Death to My Hometown” has more swagger and kick than any Springsteen song since “Glory Days”; it’s probably no coincidence that both songs are about forms of death. And the Pogues-ish Irish punk of “Death” also infuses “Shackled and Drawn” with a house-party stomp and clatter.
“Jack of All Trades” and “This Depression” are killer ballads. You can already tell that the more impatient brand of Springsteen fan will use these as bathroom breaks during live shows, but these aren’t filler tracks to break up the fast-paced songs. These are intense slow-burners: more in the vein of “Point Blank” than “Nothing Man” or “I Wish I Were Blind.”
The title track has undergone an impressive evolution. It began as a novelty song, a trifle: Springsteen’s ode to old Giants Stadium on the occasion of his final concerts there before the monolith was torn down, to be replaced by a shinier, more soulless model.
I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago
Through the mud and the beer, and the blood and the cheers, I’ve seen champions come and go
So if you got the guts mister, yeah, if you got the balls
If you think it’s your time, then step to the line, and bring on your wrecking ball
In that context, the song was nothing more than a fun throwaway — a winking in-joke to his home-state crowd. But surrounded by the rest of the album’s songs, “Wrecking Ball” takes on an improbable poignancy. It’s the title track for a reason: it’s the thesis of everything around it. Springsteen rails in defiance at the death he knows is coming, howling into the darkness with a courage that no one but him can hear.
Meanwhile, album-closer “We Are Alive” is simply one of the finest songs Bruce Springsteen has ever recorded. It sounds like Springsteen has been listening to Hold Steady closers for tips on how to finish off a record in style (yes, I know that would put us down an inspiration/influence rabbit hole) — it’s a gorgeous, momentum-building track whose climax doesn’t disappoint.
Importantly, Wrecking Ball doesn’t botch the production, a significant problem with recent Springsteen albums. These songs sound recognizably Springsteenian, but not in a way that blatantly apes his classic records. The Rising and Magic both neuter the guitars and amplify the strings, keyboards and other melodic flourishes, which means those albums sound too gentle and precious. On the songs where Springsteen wants to rock, Springsteen rocks.
Wrecking Ball isn’t perfect. “You’ve Got It” makes a fine addition to Springsteen’s collection of forgettable songs about sex. The rap on “Rocky Ground” is obviously ridiculous. And the production still isn’t quite right: the guitar tone isn’t vibrant enough, and the vocals are too much in the foreground. But this is his best album in 28 years. And it’s not like he’s released nothing but garbage in these last three decades…there are some very strong records that Ball leaps over and smashes through.
This record isn’t likely to make any Springsteen non-believers see the light. But it’s a reward for the patience of the faithful. It’s a rousing call to arms, a snarling “fuck you,” and a broken surrender. This is the one.