Thursday, March 22, 2012
It seems a central "political" theme of the record is that some people use their wealth to take advantage of other people, and they cause a lot of misery when they do. Who could disagree with that? I've read reviews that suggest part of the idea is that the wealth in and of itself somehow makes people not care about poor people, but if that's true I'm listening to an album that doesn't exist. It was made by a lot of wealthy people and unless I disbelieve the words they're singing, I think they care about poor people. I also read one that said Wrecking Ball is a statement against the system that creates wealthy people and poor people, but if that's true then I should have been able to walk out of the store without paying for the record.
Of course, the disagreement comes not from the identification of the problem -- that wealthy people and others with power often misuse that power or at the very least do not use it to help those who have less -- but with the potential answers that we believe would solve the problem. I suspect that were Springsteen and I to discuss those issues we would not agree, but I'll leave my side of the argument to people like Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell because they're smarter than I am and better able to explain those things. Plus, mired as I am in my traditional Christian theism, I tend to see the roots of those problems as a part of the human condition of fallen sinfulness rather than the mere possession of wealth. All the money does is give some sinners more ways to sin against themselves and others.
Anyway, on with the music.
The first track, "We Take Care of Our Own," is the standout. By weaving some of the folk, Americana and gospel strands he picked up during his work on the Pete Seeger cover sessions into his more straight-ahead rock numbers, Springsteen puts into one song more energy, flavor and creativity than you can hear in almost the entire Working on a Dream record. It's not strictly a return to the R&B soul-influenced sounds of his earliest records, but it's not "Murder, Inc., Crunch Pt. 47," either. In it, Springsteen does one of the things he does best -- state a problem while strongly suggesting hope that it is not insoluble. Given hard economic times people seem less willing to help each other when in need, either through their own giving or through government's official functions. But as Americans, such is not our creed nor is it to be our way -- "We take care of our own." Some folks suggest the song is only bitterly ironic and not at all hopeful, but to me the closing scenes of the second video, in which Springsteen and workers begin walking together as the video changes from black and white to color, are definite suggestions of a belief and hope of better things than we see now. To borrow a phrase from some of my colleagues, I believe Springsteen says here that while it is indeed Friday, Sunday's coming.
The Seeger folk influences are strongest on songs like the bluesy "You've Got It" and the Irish-tinged "Shackled and Drawn" and bonus track "American Land," the latter of which pretty much begs for a Shane MacGowan guest appearance if this tour hits Ireland.
Two songs struck me as curious inclusions -- the title track and another song also previously available only in a live version, "Land of Hope and Dreams." "Wrecking Ball" was originally a riotous eulogy for Giants Stadium written just before its demolition in 2010, and released first as an iTunes single and then on the London Calling: Live in Hyde Park DVD. Although home of the New York Giants the stadium was all Jersey, and Jersey son Springsteen had made it a sort of "home field" of his own with multi-night sets there on nearly every tour for many years. Loose, loud and raucous, "Wrecking Ball" was a defiant declaration that the demolition of the actual stadium couldn't touch the spirit of the workers who built it and the people who had enjoyed its events. The studio version lacks the live track's energy and seems constrained; the live song is raised mugs held high and smashed together and sloshing their contents over the celebrants before being drained in great gulps, but the studio somehow seems more like wine glasses tapped against each other and sipped. When I make Springsteen playlists, I will probably opt for the live track.
I'll probably do the same for "Land of Hope and Dreams," a longtime concert staple that made its first appearances during the 1999-2000 Reunion Tour and on the Live in New York City album. Drawing on gospel sounds and the frequently-used gospel imagery of a train on a journey to the promised land, "Hope and Dreams" was its own rousing declaration, one that echoed Jesus' words and actions as it "carried saints and sinners" and "losers and winners" and "whores and gamblers" and "lost souls" and was a place where "faith will be rewarded." One of the late Clarence Clemons' live saxophone solos on the song was added to the mix and that helps, but the studio version again feels confined and more watercolor than vibrant.
"We Are Alive" closes the regular version of the album with a vision of those who have sacrificed for the benefit of others -- and those who have been sacrificed because of the evil of still others -- that has a sort of Nebraska sound. But instead of the bleakness of that 1982 album, it too defiantly states that those who seek justice will not be stilled by death and that their spirits as well as their quest will live on in those who seek it today. It's Friday, but Sunday's comin'.
Wrecking Ball is certainly a good Springsteen album and a welcome improvement over the lackluster Dream. I don't know that I could place it at the top of his catalogue; it's got more preaching than I like (Oh irony, thy name is Friar) and many of the slower-tempo numbers tend to blend together sonically and lyrically. Even though I definitely admire the gospel tinges and the obvious religious influences, a couple of times I tend to forget which ominously quiet fatcat banker bastard song is which. But considering that there's a whole host of artists who couldn't equal a good Springsteen album on their own better days, I can't find it in me to begrudge the store for charging me for it.