When it comes to issuing eerie accurate prophecies, Nostradamus has nothing on Bruce Springsteen. The 62-year-old Woody Guthrie disciple has always been poetically aware that the future of America, for all its promise, looks a lot like the past. It's not a crystal ball the Boss uses to peer over his torn country; it's a rear-view mirror.
On the new Wrecking Ball, most of which was written before Occupy Wall Street and the Republican primary — heck, the locomotive uplift of Land of Hope of Dreams has been a live staple for years — Springsteen addresses the grotesque divide between wealth and want, a nation at war home and abroad. In America, it's a recurring plot.
On the devastating Jack of All Trades — a story-song about a broken man trying to reassure his wife — Springsteen sings: "So you use what you got / And you learn to make do / You take the old / You make it new." It's a vicious cycle for sure, a potentially murderous one, and yet it's not without a sliver of hope: "We'll be all right," he concludes. 2012 or 1929? Doesn't matter.
Springsteen is the people's champion because he roars better than he whimpers. The 11-track LP gets sappy at times. This Depression ("This is my confession / I need your heart in this depression") is noble but it ultimately gets pushed aside by stronger fare. For the most part, the Boss and producer Ron Aniello have a blast playing with chiming arena rock, Celtic stomp, gospel soar, digital burbles. And they flat-out floor it on the middle-finger thrust of the ferocious, facetious We Take Care of Our Own and the utterly pugilistic title track — written several years ago no less — that takes off like a surging protest march.
Springsteen's previous album was 2009's altogether lackluster Working on a Dream and its tedious opener Outlaw Pete. (His worst album ever? Discuss.) Rest assured there's not much room for analysis or subtlety on the new record, and thank goodness for that. Springsteen does much of the sledgehammering himself; this isn't an official E Street project, although diehard fans do get a heavenly blast of sax from the late Clarence Clemons on Land of Hope of Dreams.
Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello and his siren guitar also show up. And on the album's strongest track, the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, courtesy of a 1959 Alan Lomax recording, are summoned for the cast-of-thousands blood-pumper Death to My Hometown, a sort of funeral for his 1984 hit My Hometown: "They destroyed our families' factories /And they took our homes / They left our bodies on the plains / The vultures picked our bones." In cased you missed the message, he punctuates it with "Send the robber barons straight to hell" and the sound of a shotgun blast. Listen for that one when the Boss and his E Streets play the Tampa Bay Times Forum on March 23.
And so it goes: the backwoods bootstrap tug of Shackled and Drawn, the ominous hip-hop shuffle of Rocky Ground. The record is a salve for these times for sure. But a la Born in the U.S.A., released 28 years ago, Wrecking Ball, for better or worse, will be relevant three decades from now as well. We'll endure, and so will the Boss.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.