Harley Filben reviews Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball (2012).
If you have a certain sort of father, it’s a safe bet that Bruce Springsteen is part of your youth. Springsteen is nobody’s stereotype of a rock idol, except inasmuch as he stands in front of enormous crowds playing rock music; but his divergence from the stereotype makes him something like the embodiment of rock’n'roll as such. His populist identification with the beleaguered American masses combines weirdly with his position in American rock royalty, such that he seems to stand on both sides of the stage barrier. Now, The Boss is back – and he’s pissed off.
In an oeuvre lyrically concerned, from the 1980s onwards, with the grimy reality of blue collar life, this might just count as Springsteen’s angriest album yet. Its concerns are thoroughly contemporary – cf. the self explanatory diatribes against the denizens of one Bankers Hill, or ‘Easy Money’, which crudely but satisfactorily juxtaposes armed robbery with the depredations of Wall Street – which, for anyone who remembers the abysmal bandwagon-jumping anti-Bush material from the Rolling Stones and DAF, might fill one with trepidation. Not Bruce, however – he’s earned his stripes, from Born to Run to Born in the USA to the ridiculously good fun Seeger Sessions. This is home territory for him; besides which, plus ca change, for capitalism and Springsteen both, plus c’est la meme chose.
As noted, however, there’s a contradiction at work here – Bruce Springsteen, the voice of the voiceless, the heart in a heartless world…nickname, The Boss. Like all his records from the 1980s onwards, the production is slick and expensive; it takes an (admittedly modest) bankers’ bonus to polish anything to this kind of sheen (the Seeger Sessions CD finds this disjunction peculiarly obvious, with the barn-dance ready American folk standards recorded to absurdly professional standards). There is the populism of those appeals to the hard-up workingman, and there is the populism of the million dollar rock LP; in his person the two are united.
Indeed, the kitchen-sink approach to composition and arrangement reaches a kind of dizzying apotheosis on Wrecking Ball. Gospel choirs, rootsy strings, horn sections and Celtic tin whistles battle for space. On some tracks, the strains of the E Street Band are more obviously audible (opener ‘We Take Care of Our Own’); on others, the countrified folk material of the Seeger Sessions (‘Easy Money’, though one wishes Springsteen had stuck with the slinky boom-bap beat that opens the piece, rather than smothering it in enormous arena rock drums). One of the most effective moments is the one song not obviously a part of the Springsteen tradition – the hip-hop influenced ‘Rocky Ground’, which is mostly subdued and possessed of a more dignified melodicism, although even here Springsteen can’t resist throwing in a gospel choir at the end.
What we have here is a great notional popular front of all the immigrant musics of America, combined with home-grown folk and black musical traditions – all enraged at the unsatisfactory state of things. But that popular front can only be consummated with scalpel sharp production, which restricts every sound to its allotted space and subordinates all to Springsteen’s voice. Even the ecstatic yelps of a Pentecostal preacher sound thin and empty next to the Boss’s world-weary croon, boxed as it is into a tiny fragment of the mix.
That contradiction has been with him throughout his career; except in the 1970s, it was the other way round. The songs were more focused on the traditional rock’n'roll fare of girls and good times; but the production and arrangements were indebted to the rough and warm R’n'B and soul records of the 50s and 60s. There is a DVD in existence, somewhere, of Springsteen’s first UK show at the Hammersmith Apollo, in 1975 – his band surround him, dressed in sharp suits and shades; in the middle is The Boss, in the traditional garb of a Jersey City hobo. It’s not a bad thing that Springsteen can still turn out an infectious rock record, and translate the anger of the dispossessed into a throaty baritone; but for my fix, I’m going to stick to Rosalita.