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You’ve heard Martin, Katie, and myself all mention our recent experiences with the Boss himself since my intimate encounter at SXSW so it should be no surprise that March’s Album of the Month is Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball. As a johnny-come-lately Bruce fan, I may be either the best or worst person to be appointed to reviewing this album, depending on how you look at it. One thing’s for sure, this is one of the best albums of the 2010′s. There, I said it.
The questions laid out in “We Take Care Of Our Own”, “where’s the work that will set my hands, my soul free?/where’s the spirit, from sea to shining sea?” are not the questions of an aging rocker or an indie-heartbreak. Springsteen is if nothing else a man of constant questions–maybe a step up from constant sorrow but in the same river of muddied American water nonetheless. “Easy Money” is almost self-referential with the Americana-country tone that peers like Jorma Kaukonen and Levon Helm dwell in these days while retaining the spirit of Darkness on the Edge of Town Bruce. It’s paired seamlessly with “Shackled and Drawn” which begins the personal defeat and burial of the American individual that takes follows into the Tom Morello-featured “Jack Of All Trades”: “I’ll mow your lawn/clean the leaves out your drain/I’ll mend your roof/to keep out the rain/I’ll take the work/that god provides/I’m a jack of all trades/honey we’ll be alright.” Morello’s guitar weeps with the despair and embarrassment of the middle-aged former manufacturing workers that are tritely thrown up on every presidential candidate’s commercial these days; but Morello means it. Bruce’s songs are crafted with a profound sense of space, keeping the composition simple and the emotion graciously shared between the lyrics, the production of Ron Aniello, the E-Street and other musicians who spread this canvas with their own American consciousness.
The personal defeat takes on totality with “Death To My Hometown” with the Irish-whistle and one-one-0ne rhythm of a Clancy Brothers war ballad. The simplicity of a lyric like “they brought death to my hometown” is such that those who need to search for the meaning are not its intended audience. It’s understood what that sense is, and it tends not to be found on Wall Street or in the pages of the New Yorker.
The title track, with its callback to The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle ”I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey” is one of the select glimpses of a hopeful Bruce, and perhaps the most E-Street sounding tune on the album. It’s placed well in the mix of the record, like a familiar face at the end of a day on the unemployment line; a spouse, a child, or maybe even an older Bruce record. If it’s lyrically too easily placating the I’m-mad-but not-really OWS sentiments, it’s one of those songs that is undeniably well-crafted and executed with a belief and spirit only Bruce can achieve.
When Clarence Clemon’s soulful voice cuts through on the opening of “Land of Hope and Dreams” it’s impossible not to feel his absence. While his nephew Jake has done an incredible job on the road with the band, the authentic Big Man solo in between Bruce’s crushing honesty is nothing short of the finest moment on the record. The train that rolls through the land of hopes and dreams, carrying “losers and winners…whores and gamblers,” with “steel wheels singing” and “bells of freedom ringing” is a train we’re all on. If you can’t find yourself in one of those descriptors you’re looking far too hard.
“We Are Alive” reminds us of the Bruce that was supposed to be the next Dylan, “when the old Dylan was only 30!” he joked at SXSW. Springsteen has often spoke about how the album began mostly as pure folk music and it’s hats off to Aniello for not losing that spirit or smothering it on the final track of Wrecking Ball. Many of our Albums of the Month offer promise of great things to come for the selected artist. Some cap off incredible careers. This one stands on its own somewhere in between. Somewhere in the middle of all the noise out there, where the truth lies, where the welfare office and the foreclosure signs are more than b-roll on the six o’clock news, you’ll find these songs waiting for you.