Bruce Springsteen is mad as hell. And he's not going to take it anymore. "If I had me a gun," he fantasizes midway through his latest album Wrecking Ball, "I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight."
What's got The Boss making like Travis Bickle? The same issues that begat Occupy Wall Street -- income inequality, institutionalized greed, the increasingly insurmountable gulf between the rich and the rest.
Basically: The wholesale collapse of the American dream. It's no surprise the 62-year-old Springsteen is tackling the economic crisis on his 17th studio album (due March 6). For decades, his blue-collar odes have mined, refined and even defined the American zeitgeist, from the Vietnam-vet rage of Born in the U.S.A. to the post-9/11 solidarity of The Rising. So it's only logical that in these grim times, he has emerged with his most focused and topical album in years: A raging indictment of the soulless financiers, abandoned principles and moral relativism that have pushed us to the precipice of another Great Depression.
Likewise, it makes sense that he draws upon the musical and lyrical motifs of bygone days to frame these protest songs. Instead of the majestic heartland rock of his E Street Band -- only a few members reportedly play on these tracks -- Springsteen paints with an earthy, unvarnished palette of classic styles: Celtic folk and bluegrass, '50s pop and cowboy ballads, Dust Bowl folk and chain-gang hollers, Civil War battle hymns and revival-tent gospel. The settings are traditional; the melodies timeless. Yet Wrecking Ball is no nostalgia trip. Modern-rock producer Ron Aniello subtly retrofits those banjos, choirs and pennywhistles with loops, samples and ghostly electronic textures, forging a sonically rich hybrid that looks forward as it harkens back.
Ultimately, Springsteen also ends up looking forward. Despite its vengeance and anger, Wrecking Ball's true message is one of hope and unity: That we must rise, stand and fight as one to defeat the darkness. He may be mad as hell, but Bruce still believes in a promised land. Even if we have to shoot the bastards to get there.
A track-by-track rundown:
We Take Care of Our Own | 3:53
Bruce comes out swinging with an angry arena-rocker, issuing a clarion call for unity over muscular drums, clanging guitars and chiming glockenspiel. Equal parts admonition and anthem, it's Born in the U.S.A. for today (and destined to be misinterpreted just as badly).
It's also the perfect opener, setting the emotional tone for the album and unveiling its sonic landscape.
Easy Money | 3:35
What seems a lighthearted romp -- the tale of a couple getting ready to hit the town, set against a stomping beat and a joyous gumbo of zydeco, folk-blues, Celtic and gospel -- turns dark and desperate when we learn the pair are packing heat and heading out to rob fat cats.
Shackled and Drawn | 3:43
Recalling field hollers and work songs like 16 Tons, Springsteen delivers a lament for every wage slave who's "trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong (while) up on Bankers Hill, the party's going strong." A chain-gang beat, more Celtic folk and a gospel choir underscore the message.
Jack of All Trades | 5:58
Set atop gently, slowly tinkling arpeggios straight from a '50s piano-ballad waltz -- and decorated with a mournful trumpet and sombre strings -- an unemployed worker tries to convince us (and himself) that somehow, someday, it's going to be OK.
Death to My Hometown | 3:25
Springsteen draws upon Civil War imagery -- muzzle flashes, cannonballs, etc. -- and a Celtic-fueled fife-and-drum soundtrack for this rabble-rousing analogy. The point: The enemies in today's class war are not foreign armies but the "robber barons" pillaging from within.
This Depression | 4:07
"I need your heart in this depression," begs Bruce, leaving it unclear whether he's speaking economically or just emotionally. His plea is set to a sluggishly walloping beat, atmospheric sonics and some edgy guitar work, apparently from Tom Morello.
Wrecking Ball | 5:47
The title track and the turning point. In contrast to the despair so far, this raucous double-time folk-rocker finds Springsteen defiant and determined, urging us to "hold on to your anger" and daring oppressors to "bring (it) on ... take your best shot and let's see what you've got." This wrecking ball swings both ways.
You've Got It | 3:46
Bruce gets off the soapbox to try out a few pickup lines and some soul-rock moves a la Fire. "Ain't no school ever taught it, ain't no one ever bought it -- but baby, you got it " he purrs over bashing drums, piercing slide guitar and rich brass. "Come on and give it to me."
Hey, there's more to life than politics.
Rocky Ground | 4:39
Easily the album's oddest cut. It begins with a sampled voice yelling "I'm a soldier" and slowly builds into a solemn Streets of Philadelphia-style ballad of Biblical allusions, gospel vocals, rhythmic loops -- and rap. Yes, rap. You can almost hear the purists howl.
Land of Hope and Dreams | 6:58
Fans already know this -- it's been in the E Street live set since the '90s. This incarnation retains the arena-sized gospel-rock uplift of the familiar version, but dusts it with loops and samples. Best of all: Some big, beautiful sax from the late, great Clarence Clemons.
We Are Alive | 5:36
One last ode to the common man. Armed with his acoustic guitar and accompanied by twangy Mariachi licks reminiscent of Ghost Riders in the Sky, Springsteen strums and whistles past the graves of slain railway workers and civil-rights crusaders -- while reminding us that their spirits live on to fuel and inspire our struggle.
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