Writing about Springsteen’s new album Wrecking Ball, Jim Farber of New York Daily News dismisses it because “…that message [of downtrodden Americans] has been hammered home so relentlessly over the last three years, it doesn’t seem moldy just by Springsteenian standards, but by anyone’s.” I’m guessing Farber also has little patience for Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger – their songs covered material that was extensively reported on, too.
At the opposite extreme is Rolling Stone magazine, which by my count has delivered 5-star reviews to the last 4 out of 5 Springsteen releases.
I think Wrecking Ball is somewhere in between. It’s appropriate to judge an artist according to what he or she sets out to do, and Springsteen is clearly aiming at a Guthrie-esque populism here. He’s already done the stripped-down acoustic version of that, so now he’s updating the sound, mixing old and new, and to my ear it sounds terrific.
The lyrics aren’t consistently great, especially by formal songwriting standards (Simon and Sondheim are among the great modern lyricists.) The “Wrecking Ball” track should have been updated – although the music sounds great, the words still seem like they were dashed off in a dressing room prior to one of those last Giants Stadium shows. Stretching the metaphor of tearing down a sports arena so it represents what’s wrong with America today is an imaginative leap I have trouble making, especially when Springsteen repeatedly sings single-syllable words over many notes, and just as often compresses several syllables into a single beat. On the other hand, I find “Jack of All Trades,” sung against a simple waltz, to be as moving as anything he’s ever done.
The most intriguing thing Springsteen has done here is to meld found music from our collective past into his new sounds. Land of Hope and Dreams has long been a definitive Springsteen track – it contains everything great and also cliche about Springsteen in one glorious package – and it is combined here with a gospel choral opening that lends a new perspective as well as new power to the opening electric guitar attack. Rocky Ground begins with a preacher’s holler (Springsteen), backed by drum loop and a repeated Sunday-schoolish refrain, “We’ve been traveling’ over rocky ground, rocky ground.” Many of the tracks show the same Celtic influence that became apparent on his Seeger Sessions tour.
It strikes me that artists are increasingly judged on a curve as they endure. If this album had been released early in Springsteen’s career, many would likely say it’s pretty good and points to a promising future. After 40 years, releasing something this good (and relevant) seems like a small miracle. It’s a solid triple, and if Rolling Stone calls it out of the park, I understand why.