“Wrecking Ball” – Bruce Springsteen

4 stars (out of 5)

1

Picture of - Bruce Springsteen Wrecking Ball: Bonus Tracks: Special EditionThe problem with downloading music is that you miss out on all of the things that you get with a CD, or even vinyl, like visuals, lyrics and sleeve notes. When an album by an artist like Bruce Springsteen comes along all of these things matter, particularly this time around. This is the first album since the death last June of Clarence Clemons and you can’t underestimate the impact of that loss on Springsteen’s recorded and live performances.

The “Born to Run” album was successful for many reasons and the quality of the music was only one of them. The cover photograph on the album is one of rock music’s most enduring images. You could interpret the image of Springsteen and Clemons as a cynical attempt to cash in on the liberal sentiments of the era or you could just accept that it’s a very powerful image of 2 friends who play in a band together. If you can’t make up your mind, read the sleeve notes on “Wrecking Ball”; there isn’t a lot of room for misinterpretation.

So, on to “Wrecking Ball”. The 1 criticism you can’t level at this album is that it’s short on ideas; there are plenty of those. Actually, there’s plenty of everything; plenty of musicians, plenty of different production techniques, plenty of musical styles and plenty of themes running through the album. Unusually for Springsteen the songs feature a lot of references to other people’s songs (and a few to his own), which is probably the influence of the new collaborator, producer Ron Aniello.

There are a lot of musicians and singers on this album. It’s not quite a cast of thousands, but it’s not far from it. Interestingly, the only E Street Band members to feature are Mighty Max Weinberg and Clarence Clemons (on a couple of songs each) and, not surprisingly, Patti Scialfa. Excluding the E Streeters, there are an additional 10 musicians on the album before you even start on the horn section and the additional vocalists. Having so many musicians involved and line-ups varying from song to song, it’s inevitable that the album doesn’t have a unified feel but it’s unlikely that it was ever intended to.

Springsteen, like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, is a big enough to musical presence to be able to decide how his albums should sound and has never been afraid to release albums which were seen as uncommercial (starting with “Nebraska”). The difference this time is that virtually all of the production styles and band arrangements used by The Boss throughout his career can be heard on the 11 tracks here; from the “Nebraska” feel of “This Depression” and “Jack of All Trades” through the “We Shall Overcome” feel of “Shackled and Drawn” and “Easy Money” to the more traditional Springsteen production values and band arrangements of “Wrecking Ball” and “We Take Care of Our Own”. But it’s not that simple; throughout the album you can hear loops and samples (all credited in the sleeve notes, even the oblique references) which add a layer that Springsteen has never explored before.

Which leads us neatly into the musical styles used on the album and there are an awful lot of them. You can pick out gospel choirs, Celtic arrangements, African arrangements, bluegrass arrangements, Mexican arrangements and many others alongside the usual E Street rock band and brass stylings. And it’s not as simple as 1 style for 1 song; “Death to my Hometown” combines Celtic pipes with African choir arrangements within the first four bars of the song. “Land of Hope and Dreams” combines a fairly standard E Street Band arrangement with a huge gospel choir and a fade-out which pays tribute to Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and works perfectly. There is a song on the album which features even more strange combinations, but I’ll get back to that later.

There are a few themes which you can’t ignore on the album and some are more obvious than others. There’s a lot of anger in the lyrics, most of it aimed at bankers in particular and money men generally, but there’s also a lot more going on. When you hear a reference to the money men, there’s usually a counterpoint reference to the ordinary guy (“Shackled and Drawn” and “Jack of All Trades”) or to the impact of global finance on local communities (“Wrecking Ball”). There are constant references to community running through the album, particularly in “Land of Hope and Dreams” and the first track, “We Take Care of Our Own”. It’s easy to interpret this song as a piece of flag-waving but I think it digs much deeper than that, referring to the Jersey shore musical community and their largely blue-collar supporters .

There’s a spirituality running through the album which is probably an inevitable response to the death of a very good friend, particularly in “Rocky Ground” and “Land of Hope and Dreams” which have a real gospel feel and this spills over into some resurrection references as well (more about that one later). The selection of songs on the album is diverse and, apart from the very digital production, could be slotted comfortably into several previous incarnations. It’s a bit like an alternate universe post-“Darkness on the Edge of Town” greatest hits package.

And that leaves the one song that just defies categorisation. “We Are Alive” isn’t just a strange song by Springsteen standards; it’s a strange song by anyone’s standards. There’s an acknowledged steal of the guitar riff from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, a Mexican brass arrangement and lyrics which build towards an apocalyptic vision of the dead rising from the grave to fight injustice. There are too many contrasting threads woven into the fabric for me, but it could be a work of genius and I’m out of step.

There are some great tunes on this album (give it a few listens and they start to creep up on you when you least expect it) and there are some powerful lyrics. There are some interesting arrangements and production techniques but it doesn’t all gel quite as often as it should, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone after the events in Bruceworld over the last few years. Parts of the album inevitably feel like a cathartic response to the death of a great friend and parts of it feel like the end of an era.

So let’s get back to buying a physical copy of this album. If you did that, you’ll know what’s coming; if not, then here’s the reason why you should get physical again. The sleeve notes accompanying the album tell you the real story more effectively in just over 50 words than I can do in 1,000:

“Clarence was big and he made me feel, think, love, and dream big. How big was the big man? Too fucking big to die. You can put it on his gravestone, you can tattoo it over your heart.

Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.”?