Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Of all the artists currently operating at stadium status, not many find a new album release viewed as anything other than an excuse to hear to greatest hits trotted out one more time. Bruce Springsteen, however, is the exception that proves the rule. His status as a live performer is a given, yet his work as a recording artist hasn’t disappeared from sight either. A run of six albums in the past ten years may have not found him in the form of his life but certainly more inspired than perhaps a musician of his vintage has a right to be.
Like 2002’s The Rising, Wrecking Ball is a record cast from outside events. Whereas ten years ago it was the fallout from 9/11 that informed his writing, 2012 sees the world faced by another kind of threat – the plight of the working man in face of adversity. So it’s no surprise to find him vexed by recent events, yet no-one could have expected the record to be this fierce, especially after the lacklustre Working On A Dream.
Credited to him as a solo artist, the album nevertheless kicks as hard as anything he’s ever done. Various E-Street Band members (including the late Clarence Clemons) make cameo appearances next to the likes of Tom Morello and Pearl Jam drummer Matt Chamberlin, but while ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’ (as much a paean to the Springsteen family ethic as the political situation) kicks things off in a fairly straight up rock fashion, the record soon heads into the rootsy Americana feel of the superb Seeger Sessions album, with many of those musicians reprising their roles. It clearly suits the source material, as second track ‘Easy Money’ (a not entirely unexpected attack on Wall Street) finds Springsteen completely in the zone.
The pace may occasionally let up over the rest of the album but the passion doesn’t. ‘Shackled And Drawn’ introduces a recurring gospel element, while the waltz of ‘Jack Of All Trades’ offers a shoulder to cry on and a promise that everything will be alright. Indeed, this is not a document of defeatism, rather a strident call to arms. ‘Death To My Hometown’ bears the effects of his time spent with the Dropkick Murphys and Gaslight Anthem, complete with a traditional Irish lilt. The title track, written for the demise of the Giants Stadium, will surely have a wider resonance with its “if you got the guts, if you got the balls” lyric.
Yet Wrecking Ball is not just notable for its words. It also finds Springsteen pushing his musical boundaries, subtly but markedly. Beneath that overwhelming rootsy sound lie some fairly radical changes. There are hints of electronic percussion here and there, mixed with a joyous big band sound of brass and traditional instruments. Most striking of all is ‘Rocky Ground’, featuring a gospel choir, programmed beats and a beautiful vocal and rap from Michelle Moore. Yes that’s right, a rap. It’s fantastic and one of the album’s clear highlights.
Roaring to a finish with ‘Land Of Hope and Dreams’ and the sprightly ‘We Are Alive’, this is the sound of a rock veteran drawing on every ounce of his experience but also finding inspiration in the world around him. It’s a shame that it has taken such dire circumstances to bring out the best in him, yet as we know to our cost these events are way beyond the influence of any of us, even Bruce Springsteen. Thank heavens, though, that we have someone like him to articulate our anger, channel our frustration and voice our hope.