Bruce Springsteen has always spoken for America’s unheard voices, from the love-torn rock operas in 1975’s Born to Run, to the American Dream-turned-broken nightmare of 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. After witnessing and retelling the effects of a wayward nation for decades, The Boss now assumes the roles of judge and jury to accuse “all them fat cats” with his 17th studio release, Wrecking Ball.
Wrecking Ball is Springsteen’s overt protest record: While folk stories about America’s downtrodden poor classes are not new territory for The Boss, he is now taking an active role in voicing his resentments directly to the higher classes of politicians and bankers in Woody Guthrie fashion. The production of the music recalls the large arenas his fame allows him to perform in using motifs such as hand stomping and massive, lush arrangements, giving the listener a false sense of participation with Springsteen’s protests. However, instead of rallying at the front lines of societal reformation, the album leaves us feeling content with Springsteen’s hopeful ideals.
The album goes fluidly between various folk music influences such as “Shackled and Drawn,” a blues call-and-response anthem roaring with foot stomping energy, to the Celtic shout-fest “Death to my Hometown,” which Irish-Punk band Dropkick Murphy’s could have penned. The Boss borders on political campaigning with phrases all too juvenile: “Now get yourself a song to sing/ And sing it ’till you’re done/ Sing it hard and sing it well/ Send the robber barons straight to hell.” His willingness to experiment with various musical styles, including sampled loops, drums machines and even a hip-hop verse by Michelle Moore in “Rocky Ground,” is a homage to all walks of life he’s celebrating.
“Jack of all Trades” recalls Springsteen’s best moments from the haunting blues of 1982’s Nebraska with a blue-collar story of a working handy-man reassuring us that, despite political and economic downfall, “We’ll be all right.” Springsteen’s left-of-center gaze cuts to the problem of economic inequality, brooding, “The banker man grows fat/ Working man grows thin/ It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again,” before Tom Morello, making his first guitar debut, turns any hope of a successful moment into a wholly cheesy affair with a solo that fails to hit its target.
Wrecking Ball lacks the imaginative promise lands of Springsteen’s glory days, leaving the simple, raw and honest folk stories of his early career for hyper-polished arena-rock anthems that leaves listeners (especially those of us that have a profound love for The Boss) feeling empty. His art no longer fills listeners with the bursting energy of his early days. While Springsteen’s effort at rallying up America’s disenfranchised for the true change he’s looking for is admirable, he has left us with another promise land where the overlords of music hand us bone-dry albums.