Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball: An in-depth listener’s guide
Every Friday throughout the run of From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen, we will publish dedicated content inspired by Bruce Springsteen and the First Amendment. “Freedom of Expression Fridays” will feature unique and original posts by staff writers, musicians, visual artists, and more, with a focus on a range of issues including protest, dissent, and the role of art in politics and political campaigns.
With Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Wrecking Ball Tour having just rocked Philadelphia for a sold-out two-night stand Shawn Poole, contributing writer for Backstreets – the premier Springsteen fan magazine/website – offers his insights in a two-part series on Springsteen’s new Wrecking Ball album. Plus, to coincide with the album and with the National Constitution Center’s feature exhibition, Poole and Backstreets have organized some upcoming local events, including the Bruce Springsteen Memories Roadshow on April 21.
Last week, Poole explored the album’s broad connections to ideals such as freedom and equality. This week, he dives deeply into the music itself.
Wrecking Ball’s first track, “We Take Care Of Our Own,” opens with pounding rock drums and a synthesizer riff that sounds distinctly like a siren. It’s a sound that echoes the theremin in The Beach Boys’ “Wild Honey,” apparently yet another classic Springsteen nod to the various great musicians and records that preceded and inspired his own work.
Of course, that’s not the only reason the siren sound is there. It’s also a warning signal that we are in a state of crisis, one that requires serious attention, clear thinking and bold, brave actions. The irony in the title and chorus of the song is revealed by the rest of the lyrics. Like Springsteen’s famous song “Born In The U.S.A.,” the verses work directly against the chorus. Here, despite the upbeat music and beautiful background voices conveying exactly what it would feel like to live in a society that truly took care of its own, the verses make it clear that our current reality is much different. The final verse asks a series of questions on behalf of millions of our fellow citizens, if not ourselves, too: “Where’s the love that has not forsaken me? Where’s the work that’ll set my hands, my soul free?…Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?”
Important questions, for sure, and the rest of the album is sequenced brilliantly to explore deeply, step-by-step and track-by-track, how we as a society (if not a planet) can at least begin answering those questions affirmatively. This album isn’t some kind of political manifesto or detailed program by any means, but it conveys clearly, if not always explicitly, the experiences of those most deeply affected by the current socioeconomic crisis in our nation (as well as in many other nations), the basic cause of this crisis and, most importantly, the kinds of approaches that we must take now to begin solving the problem.
As he’s done on his previous albums, Springsteen sings these songs from the perspectives of a variety of well-drawn characters whose individual tales co-exist within the larger story he’s trying to tell. The characters, in turn, come to represent various ways of seeing and addressing our current reality.
The track that immediately follows “We Take Care Of Our Own” is the first of several sequential songs that clearly identify the “villains” in this story…or at least seem to do so on the surface.
In the country-fried “Easy Money,” they’re the “fat cats,” next in “Shackled and Drawn” they’re the “gambling man” and “the banker.” In the heartbreaking ballad “Jack of All Trades,” they’re the “banker man” and “the bastards,” whom the main character in the song would find and shoot on sight “if I had me a gun.” In the Celtic rocker “Death To My Hometown” they’re the “marauders,” the “robber barons” and most colorfully:
…the greedy thieves who came around
and ate the flesh of everything they found…
who walk the streets as free men now.
While there definitely is justifiable anger expressed here by characters that represent many of our most destitute and victimized citizens, thinking or fantasizing about shooting someone and actually doing it are two very distinct things.
More importantly, the underlying message in this set of songs is that the problem is much too large and complex for a single shotgun, or even a bunch of ‘em, to solve anyway. The real “villain” of this tale is revealed implicitly to be a global economic and sociopolitical system dominated by the interests of wealthy corporations. The result, in both the song scenarios and in reality, is an agenda that includes both major U.S. political parties being concerned more with bailing out various CEOs than with improving the lives of ordinary Jacks and Jills of all trades (including many who work in the very industries ruled by the bailed-out CEOs). Therefore, a mass movement to radically change this system (which history has shown doesn’t necessarily require violence on the part of the change-makers) becomes the logical goal, rather than simply getting rid of some “evil” people, violently, electorally or otherwise.
This systemic nature of the problem is directly addressed when the “Jack of All Trades” declares that his country’s dire economic situation “all happened before and it’ll happen again.” (A similar observation occurs a bit later in the last verse of “Wrecking Ball,” too.) If you buy the Jack’s attempts at reassurance, it could be inferred that such a cycle is simply to be expected and really is no big deal. Every note of the music behind him, however, tells you he’s lying, both to his loved one and to himself.
A few tracks later, the character in “This Depression,” whose tale movingly blurs the lines between what gets labeled “personal” and what is considered “political”, tells the truth and nothing but, about himself and/or his community: “I’ve been down, but never this down.”
The second half of the album opens with the title track. In this context, the “Wrecking Ball” now becomes a metaphor for all of the major changes needed to solve the various problems faced by the characters throughout the first half of the album.
A wrecking ball, of course, is a tool sparingly used to destroy something old, outdated, no longer safe or useful, etc., like the global system described above. At the same time, it’s often used with a plan to build something new and better, from the foundation on up, in the place of whatever must be destroyed.
The character in this song now stands ready to face whatever monumental changes must happen in his own life, as well as whatever changes must happen in the larger community around him. He can bravely face what may have seemed overwhelmingly scary at first because he’s decided to turn completely away from the stoic, self-denial approach of the Jack of All Trades. Instead, like the character in “This Depression,” he reaches out for help, this time not just to one person but to an entire community, which is the whole point of all of those beautiful background voices joining him for so long at the end. The next track after “Wrecking Ball,” “You’ve Got It,” a deceptively light, bluesy love song, continues to drive home the benefits of two (or more) hearts still being better than one.
The final three songs on the album (not counting the two non-album tracks on the “deluxe edition,” which offer interesting though not essential listening) expound in detail on just how fulfilling a united, respectful community can be and, in the case of “Rocky Ground,” just how painful the absence of such a community can feel. It’s especially fitting that “Rocky Ground” should appear on the first Springsteen album issued after the death of his longtime friend and saxophone player, the beloved Clarence Clemons.
The onstage roles that Springsteen and Clemons played together in concert for years, while often delightfully humorous, were always serious at the core about exactly what it meant for a white man and a black man to display such a strong bond of friendship in a society still struggling with the legacy of racism. Bruce and Clarence – “Scooter” and “the Big Man” – always sought to keep issues of racial equality and integration right in the faces of an overwhelmingly white audience.
This past week has reminded us, too, that the deadly seriousness of what Scooter and the Big Man consistently opposed was never made clearer than in “American Skin (41 Shots),” a song first written and performed in 2000 after the police killing of unarmed man Amadou Diallo. It always used to open with Clarence Clemons’ voice first singing the line “41 shots…” and close with his sorrowful, soothing saxophone. Starting last Friday with the Wrecking Ball Tour’s concert in Florida and in the wake of recent news about the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, performances of the song have resumed for the first time in almost a decade.
“Rocky Ground” extends the spirit behind all those onstage rituals in a new and exciting way, by incorporating gospel music and hip-hop beats into a beautiful ballad that concludes with the first-ever rap (and one of the most prominent roles ever given to a female vocalist) on a Springsteen record. The lyrics effectively use biblical imagery to portray a society still struggling to heal its divided soul, and finding at least a glimmer of hope that common ground also exists somewhere amidst all of that rocky ground. (The imagery of blood and water used in “American Skin” is invoked again here, as well.) The religious imagery is especially appropriate when one recalls Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observation that the most segregated time in America occurs on Sunday mornings.
Thanks to some brilliant in-studio magic by producer Ron Aniello, the Big Man himself appears to deliver one more wonderful sax solo on the long-awaited studio version of “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Already a fan favorite in concert for years, the song’s roots in gospel and especially The Impressions’ classic “People Get Ready” are greatly deepened in this recast version. “People Get Ready” implicitly prepared its listeners for the exciting new possibilities of the Civil Rights movement and the vision and commitment needed to make those changes happen.
“Land of Hope and Dreams” extends that vision into a new millennium, using the same imagery of a train boarding that’s been used in “People Get Ready”, the gospel/folk standard “This Train (Is Bound For Glory),” and countless other songs in the various historical strains of U.S. popular/folk music.
Springsteen’s version of the train, however, makes it clear yet again that nobody’s free until everybody’s free. He does this by insisting that this train allows everyone to board: “saints and sinners,” “losers and winners,” etc. We’re instructed by our conductor that we don’t yet know where we’re bound, though we know for sure that we won’t ever return to what we’re leaving behind. We’re also advised to pack only what we can carry: no excess baggage, please. There’s no ticket required, but there is a price to pay: the willingness to critically examine our lives, individually and collectively, and change whatever may need to change – personally, politically, spiritually, materially, etc. – to finally get all of us on that train, traveling together as a community while respecting each other as individuals, to the place where dreams won’t be thwarted anymore and bells of freedom will ring loudly and clearly for all.
Even the “sweet souls departed” remain with us on that journey to the land of hope and dreams, a point driven home musically through Clarence Clemons’ beautiful swan-song solo. The notion of the dead remaining with us even after they’re gone also animates “We Are Alive,” the album’s final track and one of the strangest, though immensely uplifting, things that Springsteen’s ever recorded. He recently described it himself as “Ennio Morricone meets Johnny Cash”, and the album credits freely admit to copying note-for-note a portion of Cash’s classic version of “Ring of Fire.” (Cash is in many ways the perfect model for Springsteen’s current music, since throughout his own long career The Man in Black, who also rose from humble beginnings, often bravely spoke his mind and practiced what he preached about both social justice and musical diversity.)
In the end, Springsteen sings in the voice of all who have died throughout history in various struggles for a better way of life. They want to reassure us that, while their bodies may have long since rotted away in their graves, their souls and spirits live on and they stand “shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart” with us every time we must face whatever new wrecking balls will come our way. (In fact, a line in “Wrecking Ball” itself asserts that “tonight all the dead are here.”) We can continue to learn from their victories and their defeats, their successes and shortcomings, their recorded histories and ideas. We can still draw inspiration from their courage and their sacrifices. In that sense, sedition becomes more like tradition, without getting trapped into any rote rituals. We honor the best in our ancestors, in ourselves and in this wonderful new music whenever we forge new ways, both individually and collectively, to support the current struggles for freedom and justice in our own communities.
Shawn Poole is a Philadelphia-based contributing writer for Backstreets, the premier Springsteen fan magazine/website. Shawn also works in the city’s public school system.
©2012 Shawn J. Poole, published on Constitution Daily with permission. The opinions expressed above are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views of any other individual or organization, including Backstreets and the National Constitution Center.