Wrecking Ball is the “angry” Bruce album, bemoaning the state of the union with a boomy sound and a lot of yelling, even for him. Part of that comes from the day’s headlines, but mostly because technology allows him to build his tracks himself, which keeps him from being reined in as he might in a band situation. Most of what’s left of the E Street Band are pasted in here and there, but overall it’s a collaboration with co-producer Ron Aniello. Between them, they cover most of the instruments, even drums. Even with real instruments, there’s a dependence on loops and samples that makes it all very sterile-sounding.
“We Take Care Of Our Own” begins with all the subtlety of a U2 anthem, but the glockenspiel or its equivalent soon gives away who it really is. It’s exactly what his fans hope for, but it doesn’t last. “Easy Money” is stuck somewhere between a drum machine and a campfire, with nursery rhyme-level lyrics; “Shackled And Drawn” has a slightly better hook. Then we come to “Jack Of All Trades”, which details all the things a workin’ man can do around the house to take care of his own during hard times. Meant to be stirring, it ends up maudlin, but hopefully somebody out there took some comfort from it. (The guitar solo comes from new best friend Tom Morello, best known from Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave.) “Death To My Hometown” is not a protest of the worst single from Born In The U.S.A. but another worker’s anthem sung in a brogue with backing to match. Despite its bombast (and another Tom Morello solo), “This Depression” manages to be a welcome return to more familiar Bruce.
The title track, inspired by the demolition of many of the stadiums he once filled, is pretty ordinary until the bridge about halfway through, which makes the return to the opening motif a smooth one. “You’ve Got It” provides another respite in the form of a basic love song without any sociological agenda, but it’s not one of his better ones. The most daring track is “Rocky Ground”, which uses a gospel sample and refrain, even including a rap; the song deserves a more stripped-down approach to be more effective. The fake gospel overtone carries over to “Land Of Hope And Dreams”, first heard over a decade earlier on a live album, now re-recorded with one of Clarence’s solos flown in. “We Are Alive” begins with the sound of a needle in dead wax, and soon stomps along as a modern Woody Guthrie song, its message deflated by mariachi horns right out of “Ring Of Fire”.
The album proper ends there, but any Boss fan worth his or her salt would have had to pick up the “Special Edition” for its two extra tracks. “Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale)” sounds like it comes from the same campfire as “We Are Alive”, and could work over the closing credits of a Coen brothers drama. Finally, “American Land”, first heard as part of the Seeger Sessions trip, gets a studio version here, and still sounds like the Pogues.
Despite the acknowledged highlights, Wrecking Ball is a lesser Springsteen album. We’ve let him slide before, and he’s allowed to experiment all he wants, but even he wouldn’t suggest that everything he’s done is gold.
Bruce Springsteen Wrecking Ball (2012)—2½