Reckoning with "Wrecking Ball"

Regular readers of this blog will have noted my fascination with the music of Bruce Springsteen.  I confess to being a long-term convert, from at least the time of catching his Born to Run tour in the intimate venue of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1975.  Who knows exactly why we bond with certain artists the way we do?  Evidently at some point in our life we're more susceptible to being deeply influenced by a particular artist's work.  For my part, having coming of age during the social, political, and cultural firestorm of the Sixties, I've never quite gotten over the sense of a world ending, that the America I'd inherited, and its promise, was irreparably broken by the betrayal of our national dreams, a betrayal enacted in the Vietnam War and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Bruce Springsteen explicitly addressed a kindred sense of brokenness in his speech inducting Jackson Browne into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.  Waxing theological, Springsteen remarked, ". . . our job here on earth, the way we regain our divinity, our sacredness, and our general good standing is by reconstructing love and creating love out of the broken pieces we've been given."

To put it in Robert Frost's terms, Bruce Springsteen's work is very much concerned with the question of "what to make of a diminished thing," a question facing my generation in the wake of the cyclonic Sixties.  It's important to note here that in his 2004 speech, Springsteen blames not only our political leaders but our "fall from Eden" for the incompleteness of our lives and our failure to truly love each other here on earth.  That Ecclesiastes-like recognition saturates Springsteen's new album, Wrecking Ball, its considerable political rage notwithstanding.

Long-term Springsteen fans have had to deal with a certain ongoing disappointment factor, chiefly because early in his career Springsteen set an impossibly high bar with a string of brilliant albums that he himself could hardly hope to match.  Just as Bob Dylan has never again approached the heights of Blonde on Blonde, so nothing of Springsteen's later opus has come close to Darkness on the Edge of Town, not even his excellent The Rising in 2002, his best work of the new millennium until Wrecking Ball.

How good is Wrecking Ball?  Good enough, I think, to satisfy many of us who have continued, incorrigibly, to dream of a return to the peaks of Springsteen's handful of classics.  Musically Wrecking Ball is all over the Americana map; most of the styles and genres Springsteen has explored, since and including the original E Street Band sound, are represented, as well as a few new ones.  Wrecking Ball can be seen as a career retrospective, and maybe an element of musical self-portraiture is intended.  Some artists' development is additive rather than linear, their art more and more inclusive and summary of their past efforts.  Wrecking Ball is also one of Springsteen's more artfully constructed albums, and in fact needs to be heard whole in order to work its full magic on the listener.  A pair of songs familiar from live performance on previous tours, "Wrecking Ball" and "Land of Hope and Dreams," serve as emotional anchors, their very familiarity punching up the overall impact of the sequence into which they're effectively fitted.

Much has appropriately been made of the political content of Wrecking Ball; at the same time Rolling Stone's David Fricke has found Wrecking Ball "boldly apolitical."  He's right in the sense that Springsteen's criticisms of predatory capitalism don't side explicitly with Democrats; by implication, both parties come in for blame for the shambles of the American political and economic systems, of which there is plenty of evidence on Wrecking Ball, though no naming of names.  

Springsteen has stressed, at least as much as the political, the spiritual element which takes over Wrecking Ball midway through. Yes, without question this is the album where Springsteen wears his religious heart on his sleeve.  That spirituality manifests most obviously in multiple references to Jesus and in the gospel-based "Rocky Ground," but also in the weirder, more shadowy references to the dead and the afterlife that almost shamanistically underlace Springsteen's fairly conventional Catholicism.  The resurrection that Springsteen envisions in "We Are Alive" resonates less with the orthodox Christian view than with indigenous ancestral views of the soul's survival after death.  Springsteen's position, also strongly influenced by the black gospel tradition, ultimately comes out in the wash as deeply pan-American.

I would add to the political and the spiritual a third thematic thread I see throughout Wrecking Ball:  a personal reckoning with the inevitability of death.  Springsteen is 62 and, though a demonstrably fit 62, understandably conscious of what he calls in the title song "burning down the clock."  In the past few years, the E Street Band has sustained mortality's sting in the deaths of organist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons, and those losses also give Wrecking Ball a psychic weight, though often subliminally rather than overtly.

At least one reviewer has disparaged "Land of Hope and Dreams" as a political "stump speech," without taking into account that this song had already been a concert staple circa 1999 before the Bush presidency and the so-called War on Terror.  Far from a statement on the post-9/11 milieu, "Land of Hope and Dreams" may best be heard in its original historical context of Y2K anxiety and the heightened sense of mortality it provoked in Baby Boomers watching the century (and millennium) of their youth and glory pass into history.  "Land of Hope and Dreams" still seems to me at core an unsettled acknowledgment of Boomers' passage toward the Great Unknown, though it works on other levels as well:

Grab your ticket and your suitcase

Thunder's rolling down this track

You don't know where you're going now

But you know you won't be back


Springsteen's achievement on Wrecking Ball is to bind these three major themes into a whole that is, if not seamless, at least magnetically coherent.  Its arc, from reflecting economically besieged lives in the current recession to affirming historic struggles for economic justice, is finally transcendent.  While its initial spur and focus is the present cycle of hard times, the eternal finally overrides the temporal and topical, not by excluding them but by folding them into its total vision.  Springsteen's acknowledgment that "hard times come and hard times go, just to come again" is key to this perspective.  He channels the outrage of which the Occupy Wall Street movement is the latest mass manifestation, yet knows and affirms that all human events take place within a vast, enveloping, mysterious, cyclical timelessness.

The political commentary for which Wrecking Ball has drawn so much critical attention is certainly present, then, but it is not all of Wrecking Ball or even its most important part.  On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen gathers these concerns, both personal and societal, and lifts them to another level of understanding at which we recognize the struggle of our nation and times as part of the story of a larger, more gradual movement toward justice, security and dignity despite essentially flawed human governance and our limited time on earth.  

The form of the music is a message in itself.  Its variety says that the single-minded focus of youth gives way to what Yeats would call a "many-mindedness" of experience.  The past is past; Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons are gone, and the music the old E Street Band made lives on only in recordings and in heart's memory.  Wrecking Ball is the sound of the mature, seasoned Springsteen -- the realist Springsteen as opposed to the romantic Springsteen -- symbolically bringing on the "wrecking ball" to his own past, which cannot stand in the place of the present.  Be open, the new music says, to the new music.  Every moment we are passing through a place to which "we won't be coming back," and to live is to accept with hope and trust what life offers next, an act of spirit that some Springsteen fans may find challenging.  I know I do.

Over four decades, Springsteen's audience has indeed followed him to many places "we won't be coming back" to.  We have all had to say good-bye to many past selves.  On Wrecking Ball, perhaps more than any other of his albums so far, Springsteen pays tribute to those past incarnations, not only his own but his bands', with full knowledge that the "train" is moving on and we're all on board.  Best to enjoy this moment of life and its own unique music, in the case of Wrecking Ball a truly inclusive revival Springsteen has rousted together to inspire us to action and console us when the inevitable losses occur.  The music is exhilarating, capable of buoying us on its inexorable, joyful journey whether or not we pay attention to the lyrics.  And speaking of lyrics, while the traditional folk-gospel tune, "This Train," Springsteen's inspiration for "Land of Hope and Dreams," may in its original version exclude "the hopeless sinner," Springsteen's train does not.  "This train carries saints and sinners . . . All aboard."  There is room for us all on the train of his music.

No doubt Springsteen in his current incarnation as angry avatar of the 99% is riding the energy of the Occupy movement.  Certainly it is the 99% who have made Wrecking Ball a #1 hit its first week on the charts, and not the spiteful 1% Springsteen-haters whose fulminations poison some web discussions of this sweeping album.  We're poised at the edge of a genuine, wide-spread social uprising, a wave of which the Occupy movement is only the merest tip.  That wave has also helped to lift Springsteen's boat.  We can count as a small victory in that struggle that one of our great artists of conscience and consciousness appears to be sailing into another of his periods of popularity, still hard, amazingly, still hungry.  

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