“…this record makes me believe we might actually change something.”
As much as Wrecking Ball lived up to the hype for me, I’m not blasphemous enough to say it belongs in the same league as the holy trinity (The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle, Born to Run, and Darkness on the Edge of Town), or really any of the early stuff. However, while Wrecking Ball comes up short in a few ways, it does what a Bruce record is supposed to do: it makes you want to be alive.
I don’t listen to Springsteen for the general broad criteria of a rock ‘n roll record, I listen to Springsteen because sometimes life is hard and you just want to lie down and die. Springsteen makes all that seem silly. His music is the reminder that there is hope, and on this record it’s not just an assumed factor. Here it’s the very premise. Bruce is more direct and honest about what he’s trying to do on this record than on any other. Despite its flaws, this is ultimately a record that will make lives better.
The record begins with a challenge: ‘We Take Care of Our Own’ is similar to ‘Born in the USA’, in that if one listens to the chorus it seems like a resounding nationalistic claim of America’s superiority. Instead, it’s an indictment of America’s (and to some extent the entire developed world’s) failure to deliver on the promise of civilization. No one expects the streets to be paved with gold, but they don’t expect to get cast out to die a nameless death in a back alley somewhere either. However, it holds true to its purpose of making us want to live; it is a challenge rather than a condemnation. It challenges us not because we let the dream die, but because we pretended it died when it could very well be still alive if we kept it that way.
Before my devotion continues, I suppose I ought to be fair and admit that there are three songs on the record I wish were not. The second track, ‘Easy Money’, has a good enough premise that echoes the title track from Nebraska. It embodies the criminal to truly explore the negative impact of the state of things. Still, it’s like ‘You’ve Got It’; in that the premise is nice enough, but the execution is sort of flat. ‘Easy Money’ actually bears the line “you put out the dog, I’ll put out the cat,” and while that might be interpreted as the contrast of a common daily activity against the crime that the husband and wife are preparing to commit, it’s just awkward. ‘You’ve Got It’ is just an unnecessarily repetitive love song. While those two are guilty for doing too little, ‘Rocky Ground’ is guilty of doing too much. It’s a lot like ‘Outlaw Pete’: That song is generally pretty fantastic, except for the part at the beginning wherein Bruce recounts the titular character committing a robbery… As an infant. This is the sort of thing that might be better left unsaid, and it’s present on ‘Rocky Ground’ as well.
‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ (the best song on the record) and ‘Rocky Ground’ are essentially the same song, except with an awkwardly flat rap breakdown and no Clarence solo. It’s like telling the same joke twice and messing up the punch line. The contrast is even more notable with the two tracks coming one after another. In fact, that’s similar to ‘Shackled and Drawn’ and ‘Easy Money’. They’re both painfully American borderline country songs about the victimization of the working man, but ‘Shackled and Drawn’ is so much better. And as far as love songs go, ‘This Depression’ beats out ‘You’ve Got It’ without diverting from the core themes of the record.
The album ends on ‘We Are Alive’, which restates the message of persistence in the face of adversity laid out in the title track. Both of these songs are absolutely perfect Bruce songs in my opinion. The whole world economy went to crap thanks to a very few people profiting from deals bound to go bad, and these songs seem to suggest that not only did we tough it out, we won’t back down. While I usually spend my days too cynical to believe it, this record makes me believe we might actually change something.
Finally, ‘Swallowed Up (In The Belly of the Whale)’ is one of several Christian-leaning songs on the record, but it’s worth a listen regardless of the belief system of the listener. Ultimately, it doesn’t preach so much as it uses the parable of Jonah and the Whale. Unfortunately, the placement of this as a bonus track has it following the call to action of ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ and the statement of integrity in ‘We Are Alive’, and so it really alters the tone of the record.
Having the challenge of ‘Swallowed Up’ followed by the invitations of ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ and the final confidence of ‘We Are Alive’ really holds true to the album’s political message, while reinforcing the notion that it is truly great to be alive. If you chose to buy the bonus track at that point (and you should) you would be treated by the Boss essentially playing Irish Folk-Punk. While ‘American Land’ is literally a critique of America’s immigration policy, in spirit it’s a loud, fast, energetic song basically asking us not to be jerks to people. Who can’t get behind that?
– Zack Fowler