The Boss always did tragedy and hopeless heartache better than he did jubilation and hope. Unsurprising, the events of 9/11 and the Bush Administration gave birth to two of his finest latter-day works, The Rising and Magic, while Obama and optimism left us with the tepid Working On A Dream – an album saved by the last minute addition of the gloriously decrepit theme from Daren Aranofsky’s The Wrestler.
Ravaged by the financial crisis, the hope and lasting change that Obama’s election promised has been deferred, perhaps indefinitely, as depression and joblessness ravage America. Ghost towns and tent cities are now an endemic that cannot be ignored. The working class base, whose romance Springsteen has so often uncovered, is now crying out for a voice of both sympathy and vengence, and it’s that voice that Wrecking Ball seeks to provide.
Springsteen warned us it’d be corny prior to release, and he doesn’t flinch in the face of populist sentiment. At it’s best Wrecking Ball has a brilliantly catchy capacity to unify. The bile and sarcasm of “We Take Care Of Own” uncuts its cheery 70s veneer, while the all inclusive “Land Of Hope And Dreams” smoulders beneath a blistering sax break. However, if the album is bookended by rousingly schlock it’s anchored around deep-rooted dejection.
“Jack Of All Trades” contrasts a steadfast, head down, make do attitude with a sense of perpetual disillusionment. There’s plenty of banker bashing on display but Springsteen’s critiques run deeper than cathartic venting. He’s seen this story before and seems resigned to the fact that the bankers, politicians, and the human race as a whole, are doomed to repeat their mistakes over and over and over again. The pitiful victim is not the working man (“I’m A Jack of Trades, We’ll Be Alright”); instead Springsteen simply mourns the folly of the world torn to shreds by greed.
After that grueling waltz Springsteen wisely lightens the tone with the whiskey stained march of “Death To My Hometown”. The message remains bleak as Springsteen describes the silent slaughter of a way of life, destroyed not by war but by the invisible hand. Rather than whimpering, however, The Boss decides to rally the troops. It’s a trick that works well when contrasting the banker’s bloodless destruction to the great wars that have stained America’s history, but it’s less endearing on the smultzy but still enjoyable romp “Easy Money”.
“This Depression” and “Wrecking Ball” solidify the album’s emotional core as Springsteen uncovers the urgency of his late 70s/early 80s peak. Dealing with grand sentiments the two tracks are proud rallying calls; the first to cling to and find strength in one another, the second to stand together and face the carnage as one. The leitmotif is clear, whether this is your first crash or simply your latest, the system will crumble, tragedy will recur, grit you teeth, lose your illusions, and make do.
Wrecking Ball is so effective in both capturing and transcending the populist spirit that you can forgive The Boss his more cringe inducing indulgences (“Shackled And Drawn”). Rich in wisdom and marred by disillusionment, but not dejection, Springsteen has cobbled together an album that feels strikingly poignant and entirely of the moment. Wrecking Ball mourns the loss of hope and optimism without appearing naïve, as Springsteen prepares to endure, as those who’s fate lies in the hands of others always must.
By the album’s end The Boss has taken us through misery and resentment, delivered a sense of renewed unity, if not optimism, and arrived at a position of regret. Not for what has been lost, but for ever buying in in the first place. An end to boom and bust? How could we have been so foolish? Boom in bust is all we’ve ever known, and if The Boss is right, it’s all we ever will: unless we stop taking care of our own, and start caring for each and everyone. David Hayter