Springsteen's New Album, 'Wrecking Ball,' Captures Rage of Americans Still Rocked by Economic Crisis
“I have spent my life judging the distance between American reality and the American dream," Bruce Springsteen told reporters after playing his new record, Wrecking Ball. That judgment, on the new record, feels harsh, foreboding, and yet hopeful and defiant in the face of everything.
Springsteen long ago achieved that American Dream, but he's never stopped singing about the people he grew up with, never stopped identifying as a member of the working class. On Wrecking Ball, as with so many of his best records, he brings us a cast of characters that are at times worlds away from our own lives, and at times uncomfortably like us; he echoes America back at it, transcending divisions like “red” and “blue.”
"A big promise has been broken. You can't have a United States if you are telling some folks that they can't get on the train. There is a cracking point where a society collapses. You can't have a civilization where something is factionalized like this,” he told the Guardian.
Springsteen comes from a long tradition of American protest music, folk and country, Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger—with whom he performed at Obama's inauguration, and whose songs he recreated in his 2006 record We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. But on this album, perhaps the American troubadour he best recalls is Woody Guthrie, whose songs of the Depression gave a voice to the lost characters struggling to retain their humanity in the face of a punishing economic crisis.
It's a working-class tradition, as at home with police officers as with prisoners, with union workers and runaway teenagers, with space for all the forgotten. (On the new song “Land of Hope and Dreams,” Springsteen mentions “whores and gamblers” in a slightly trite but honest tribute to those who work outside the official economy but nonetheless do more honest work than the bankers upon whom he heaps scorn.)
By the time Springsteen started composing his odes to the industrial working-class in the 1970s, it was already dying; he didn't know it then and that's the tension at the heart of probably his best album, Born to Run, a record that celebrated the willingness to escape rather than the urgent need to stay and embody something that was already disappearing. But he returned, thoughtful, three years later to the Darkness on the Edge of Town, an album for which he recorded so many songs that the ones that didn't make it were released in 2010 as The Promise, and he never again considered leaving.
Bruce didn't show up in Zuccotti Park or in Wisconsin even when other class-conscious rockers did (like Tom Morello, with whom he collaborates on the haunting track “This Depression”), but instead, maybe he was at home figuring out how to interpret the rage and the uprising to his aging fanbase, many of whom didn't see anything wrong with the Reagan campaign's use of "Born in the USA."
"The temper [of America] has changed. And people on the streets did it. Occupy Wall Street changed the national conversation – the Tea Party had set it for a while,” Springsteen told the Guardian.
He has a way of seeing the best of America--not in a can't-we-all-get-along way, or a gung-ho nationalist one, but on a deep emotional level. With Devils and Dust, he captured all the sadness that we had buried beneath our partisan rage, at just how broken things were in the middle of the Bush era, and with The Rising he channeled the unity, the solidarity we felt for a brief moment, finding beauty in mourning and tragedy.
There's rage aplenty on the new album—as Springsteen told the Guardian, "What was done to our country was wrong and unpatriotic and un-American and nobody has been held to account.” The characters who populate Wrecking Ball feel that rage, struggle against it, give in to it, use it to draw strength from and let it poison them. It's a big-sounding record, with the full band—the last album on which Clarence Clemons, the Big Man, Springsteen's longtime saxophone player who so memorably graced the cover of Born to Run, and who died last year, played—echoing the sound of The Rising and creating a space big enough to hold all the conflicting emotions. It's angry and sorrowful, sexy and optimistic, dreamy and real.
The opener, “We Take Care of Our Own,” like “Born in the USA,” will no doubt be misinterpreted, but it's actually celebrating the kind of disaster solidarity that Rebecca Solnit described in her book A Paradise Built in Hell. Not for nothing does he reference New Orleans, the Superdome, where Americans had to help each other when the government so colossally failed them.
God and guns show up on this record maybe more than Bruce's liberal fans would like, but that's part of the story too--the threat of violence hovers just beneath the surface of "Easy Money" and “Jack of All Trades,” the latter the voice of a man just one more stroke of bad luck away from his breaking point, the former already broken and out to get his, no matter what gets in his way. The Jack of All Trades will “take the work/that God provides” to provide for his family, any work that comes his way, like so many of the millions still unemployed right now. The violence, the deep cold anger, in both these songs reminds us how intimately linked God and guns still are in so many parts of this country, and that Americans on both sides of the political aisle know that the financial meltdown was something done to us, and that there were people responsible for it.
If the Jack of All Trades is promising that things will be OK, the Everyman of “This Depression” knows it's not going to be. You can almost imagine the shift—the kids have gone to bed, the couple steps into their bedroom and collapse against one another, and he breathes a sigh into his partner's ear and begs for their love not to fracture as their material life gets harder. I will not make it without you loving me, he says, and captures all the torment of a worker whose pride was lost with his ability to provide.
“Death to My Hometown” might sound like a threat, but really it's a lament and a promise of revenge, contrasting the devastation of war with the economic assault that too many hometowns have felt. The title echoes Bruce's classic “My Hometown,” which was a quiet celebration of a fading but still-vital small town. By contrast, the martial beat here is the sound of the town's residents marshaling to fight back.
The title track, like the best songs on The Rising, wraps fear and anger in celebration. “Take your best shot,” Springsteen dares us, and the whole band backs him up—the Big Man's sax reminding us that we're not alone. “Hold tight to your anger,” he commands us, because when you're angry you begin to get things done, you dare to fight, you can change things. It captures the feeling of protesters daring the cops to arrest them, strikers daring the boss to force cuts, a capitol full of Wisconsinites daring Scott Walker to do his worst.
The closing song, “We Are Alive,” harks back to Guthrie and Seeger, to the folksingers of the past, to Joe Hill and the union songwriters who carried the labor movement, to Civil Rights marchers and the songs they sang, to migrants who struggled to cross the border. To those who fought and were forgotten. It's a hopeful, beautiful sentiment to end with: that America was built by workers, activists and immigrants, and many of them were willing to lay down their lives to do so.
Bruce Springsteen still sees the best in us, and we can only hope that we actually live up to it.