Trying To Get To You

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Failure Of Springsteen's Wrecking Ball

Let’s be straight with each other, shall we?
Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball is not a great album. In fact, it’s debatable whether relative to Springsteen’s body of work, it’s even a particularly good one. It evidences the same weaknesses that more than a little of Springsteen’s work has suffered from since his last masterpiece, Tunnel OfLove (1987); over-thought and over-intellectualized concepts that border dangerously on self-importance, backed by music that feels like it’s made by an artist who desperately wants to find new sounds that are the equal of his older ones, but who cannot quite locate them. It is an ambitious album and it is certainly a failure, one of the biggest of his career.
If Wrecking Ball is Springsteen honing in on the Great Recession and placing blame where he thinks it belongs, his chronic tendency to overthink things has him deliberately and needlessly link it lyrically it to past American crisis’, whether it’s the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement or striking railroad workers in the 19th century, which only diffuses the power of the songs for the present they are attempting to speak to. And the music, mostly folk based with touches of gospel, r&b, rock and inexplicably, Irish folk, has a modern sheen, but more often than not, it feels old, as though Springsteen is writing songs for the downtrodden workingman from 1937, not 2012.  It sounds like Springsteen has chosen to aim the gun--and has picked up a musket instead of an automatic weapon.
When Springsteen sings of “robber barons” and “cannonballs” in “Death To My Hometown;” or  “fat cats” on the woefully clichéd “Easy Money,” the ancient language makes everything feel embarrassingly impotent; it’s as though Professor Springsteen has taken over, and instead of powerfully addressing the breakdown in American society as it exists and is spoken of right now, he’s writing the songs to double as history lessons. What Springsteen has forgotten is that great political albums (whether it’s Dylan or What’s Goin’ On) speak and live in the present and then become timeless—they make history more than they sing about it.
Wrecking Ball’s first single, “We Take Care Of Our Own,” is firmly placed in the present as it lists all the places that we don’t take care of our own, but its ode to the E Street sound (yes, including glockenspiel) is all too shiny and glossy, brawny but empty. Producer Ron Aniello (Jars of Clay, Candlebox, Lifehouse) cannot (as Brendan O’Brien could not) find a guitar tone that sound anything other than, well, mainstream cheese. (For the great rocker he is, it’s inexcusable that Springsteen hasn’t had a consistently cool sounding guitar tone on record since 1984.)
Aniello and Springsteen produced the album pretty much as a duo, with Springsteen playing the majority of instruments himself and Aniello providing percussion and sampling. The samples are fine, but they provide little—they feel tacked on, obvious, and ultimately, unnecessary. And why Springsteen, one of the greatest rockers of all time, has chosen to work with the guy whose biggest credits are Jars Of Clay, Lifehouse and Candlebox is a mystery, other than the fact that they met through Aniello’s production of a Patti Scialfa album. The choice of Aniello evidences another breakdown in the Springsteen camp in recent years—the lack of collaborators who are at Springsteen’s level and can elevate him. At the end of the day, taste matters, and many of the production decisions made on Wrecking Ball exhibit a fatal amount of middling taste.
There are some fine moments on the album. “Shackled and Drawn,” despite its Irish lilt, is buoyant enough to overcome its arrangement. “This Depression” leaves the Irish folk by the wayside and with a beat straight out of “When The Levee Breaks,” has a yearning that and sense of loss that is affecting. “Land Of Hope And Dreams,” a great Springsteen song that he’s been playing since 1999, is rearranged and is far more effective rhythmically than it’s ever been with the E Street Band. “Rocky Ground” has an overtly gospel tone that uplifts. But none of these recordings, not a single one, is a classic, and every Springsteen album in the last decade, even Working On A Dream, has had its share.
You can’t fault Springsteen’s good intentions on Wrecking Ball. His passion and commitment is still palpable. But ultimately, this is an album that won’t make the sub prime mortgage guys at Goldman Sachs lose a single minute of sleep. At the end of the day, Springsteen has done no better than the Obama Administration to hold to account those responsible for the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. If anything, so far in 2012, Obama is having a far better year than Bruce.