1. We Take Care Of Our Own
Now I know why this was put out as the first single. It is the only song on the album that resembles most like a classic E Street song, even though the band didn't play on it. But it still rocks. You could say that they played it safe by putting this out. On the other hand, Wrecking Ball is an album heavily focused on a specific subject matter, an America still recovering from a severe financial depression, an America in the aftermath of the historic Occupy Movement, and this opener brings forth the important rhetorical question, 'Do we take care of our own?', and the rest of the album attempts to answer it. It's like the Born In the U.S.A. of the 21st Century. I recently noticed the little details such as the guitar-wailing at the beginning that sounds like warning sirens. Initially I thought the songs were gonna be on the same musical page as We Take Care. Boy was I wrong.
2. Easy Money
This is where the gospel elements start coming into place. Awfully similar groove to Into The Fire, especially the violins. The lyrics are very Nebraska-like, but more simplistic; regular Joe and his girl imitate the fellas on Wall Street by going on a robbing spree in town, thinking 'if those banker fat cats can steal money and get away with it, maybe so can I'. The gospel chants accompany the carefree nature of the character. It's a dark, happy song, but it lacks a solid melody. For me it's the weakest track on the album, but it starts the conversation with the listener going.
3. Shackled And Drawn
The struggle and plight of the downtrodden continues. This is a strong Seeger Sessions-type energetic country-folk stomp. Again, lovely sounding gospel vocals incorporated with accordion. Musically it's uplifting, though the words are anything but; they read out like a classic Woody Guthrie tune -- a line like "let a man work, is that so wrong" couldn't be more honest. Bruce uses the chain gang as a metaphor for citizens of today facing economic hardships, getting screwed over by the corporations and politicians. I don't dig the preaching bit at the end though.
4. Jack Of All Trades
The most simple and perhaps, cliched of slow waltz-ballad melodies you can think of, not that there's anything wrong with that. But the songwriting is downright devastating -- it reflects what many Americans, and probably more non-Americans are going through these days to make ends meet, they'll do any kind of mundane labor to put food on the table. The mournful horns in the middle play out like a funeral dirge. Everytime Bruce sings "We'll be alright", even he's unsure of himself. Also it's worth listening all the way through for the great guitar solo at the end, courtesy of Tom Morello.
5. Death To My Hometown
'Fucking killer' was what came to my mind when I first heard this. Celtic-flavored mid-tempo rocker that wouldn't sound out of place on a Dropkick Murphys record. Potent and galvanizing. I'm intrigued by the samples used at the start -- it's called The Last Word Of Copernicus, sung by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, dug from the Alan Lomax Archives. Bruce adopts an Irish accent and sings like he's slightly drunk and bloody pissed off, about his hometown in ruins, not from war or physical atrocity, but from the greedy thieves of Corporate America. That very last verse works just like one of those early Dylan folk songs, you know where he just keeps repeating the two chords -- I absolutely love it. And then when that gun cocks and fires, the hair on your skin immediately stands up. It's a call to arms; 'let us go fuck the pigs who fucked us and our homes'. This'll be great live, and I reckon it'll have more emotional resonance for the Detroit audience.
6. This Depression
A rather unusual song for Bruce. Unexpected sonic textures. I've never heard drums so upfront before in any Springsteen song (think of John Bonham on When The Levee Breaks). And Tom Morello contributes some of the most unique and outstanding guitar work on any Springsteen tune. The character, after going through what he has gone through during the past four songs, is at his lowest point, and yearns for a human touch. And then we move on to the second half of the album, where the tone changes.
7. Wrecking Ball
Not so much a fan of the live version, but this one seems to take on a new life. Surprisingly Bruce didn't rework the lyrics. But given the context of today's world, this is no longer a song about an old defunct stadium. It's about facing hardships and obstacles that come our way and taking none of that shit. These could include death and aging, something which the E Street Band has been very accustomed to the last several years-- two pillars of the band are gone, but the rest are still standing, picking up the flag and carrying on the good work. The build-up refrain of "hard times come and hard times go" is done in classic Springsteen fashion and never fails to move me. Here marks the turning point of the whole record. You can break us, but you can't break our spirit.
8. You've Got It
The supposed 'love' song of the album, close in spirit to The Fuse. It may seem like filler in terms of fitting in with the theme and though it lacks a certain lyrical depth compared to the rest of the tracks, it acts as a breather after the intensity of the title song. The words are ambiguous enough for that "it" to represent anything in our personal lives; be it love, sex, keeping faith, the best human qualities we find in our friends and family, things that money can't buy. Mainly driven by the acoustic guitar, there's a rather sexy-sounding bluesy slide that comes in during the second verse, which makes it even better...and then the looped handclaps coming in; Bruce still has a knack for creating great, catchy pop ditties.
9. Rocky Ground
This song is the most interesting of the bunch, because it has Bruce stepping into hip-hop territory, which is more gospel-based than modern. Same chord progression as One Step Up, and drum loops aplenty here. There's even an old sample, I'm A Soldier In The Army Of The Lord, put to good use. I think the female rap actually enhances the song; it fits in nicely without being too jarring. On a whole, it's spiritually rousing, complete with soulful horns, the kind you're likely to hear on Van Morrison's repertoire. My favorite Bruce vocals on this record, and he manages to connect the temple's moneychangers of Jesus's time to the corrupt businessmen of today. He reassures us 'there's a new day coming', and that everything is gonna be alright in the end. It's perhaps the most important song in the anchoring of the album narrative.
10. Land Of Hope And Dreams
The definite highlight of the album. I knew it was gonna be different from the live version we all love, but never thought it'd be THIS different. For one thing, I wouldn't have expected any electronic drums here, but it seems to work wonders. The song begins with some gospel singing (inspired by The Impressions' People Get Ready), which is the perfect transition from the ending of Rocky Ground, and then all of a sudden, a huge wall of sound hits you, as the drums (not Max Weinberg) come in with the familiar guitar riff -- it's goosebumps-inducing. I admit when I first heard this, I was in tears when Clarence's sax solo came up, his final one on any record. What a beautiful tribute to Big Man. And I like that it's not the closer. This modern, souped-up version is really beyond my wildest dreams. But both this and the original live versions are equally great, it's like comparing between the studio and live Rock Of Ages version of The Band's The Night They Drove All Old Dixie Down -- again, equally great. If there's one song that sums up his work as an artist in the past forty years, it's Land Of Hope And Dreams; the train as a symbol for America, and the E Street Band.
11. We Are Alive
In terms of songwriting, I think it's the most moving on this album, and no doubt one of Bruce's best efforts in recent years. This could very well be a tribute to Clarence, and Danny for that matter -- "Let your mind rest easy, sleep well my friend, it's only our bodies that betray us in the end", simply outstanding lyrics. Bruce's singing style reminds me of that of The Ghost Of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust. The Spaghetti Western & mariachi style of music gives a vivid Southwestern feel. Love the homage to Johnny Cash's Ring Of Fire. Singing from the perspective of the post-Civil War railroad workers, civil rights protestors and immigrants, Bruce attests that their distant past struggles are not much different from ours today. We as the new generation, anywhere in the world, have to remember our ancestors that have gone before us, remember the sacrifices they've made to build our nations, keep them in our hearts and continue fighting for what's right.
This is an album that speaks to our times. Thematically, Wrecking Ball isn't that far off from The Rising, in terms of dealing with loss, hope, faith, love, and most importantly the reliance of others around us to give us strength to move forward. It's an all-encompassing human experience; incredibly spiritual. Bruce weaves a modern story while digging deep into the traditional American songbook, taking out folk, country, gospel, soul, R&B, and a little bit of rock & roll. He has also worked with producer Ron Aniello, who has created the best-sounding Springsteen album yet. No brick-walling, everything can be heard clearly, most importantly Bruce's vocals. This needs to blasted on a good system to be fully appreciated.
Sure it's an angry record, though not as angry as the media makes it out to be. Like Bruce mentioned many times, it's an anger deeply stemmed in national pride. And it's in no way a political record, rather a macro social commentary on today's America, but again it could be applied to all over the developed world. It's a record that flows perfectly from one song to another, one emotion into another. Bruce is one of the all-time great album artists, if not the greatest. Just a tremendous effort. People need to hear this.
Bonus Tracks: Swallowed Up takes some getting used to. It's very haunting, very powerful, but if it were one of the eleven main tracks, it would drag the album down. Meanwhile, the studio version of American Land is a monster of a song, a more rocking version of the Seeger Sessions, similar to what the E Street Band did on the previous tour. I do hope Bruce retires this for the upcoming tour.
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Here are some of the more well-written reviews of Wrecking Ball:
- Rolling Stone
- American Songwriter
- The Guardian
- New York Times
- Huffington Post
- Pop Matters
- The Telegraph
- Jukebox Graduate
P.S. Remember to tune in to E Street Radio (Ch. 20) on SiriusXM on March 9, 8pm Est for a live stream of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's performance at the historic Apollo Theater. CLICK HERE to sign up for a free online trial.