Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball – review

(Columbia)

No one really comes to a Bruce Springsteen album looking for subtlety. But there have been few Springsteen albums that so resemble a sledgehammer holding a megaphone as Wrecking Ball, his 17th.

More rousing than The Rising, more polemical than his album of Pete Seeger sessions, Wrecking Ball deploys biblical imagery, train metaphors, Irish rebel reels, mariachi horns and even the sax solos of the late Clarence Clemons on an album in which the bankers get it in the neck so hard, some wags have already subtitled it Occupy NJ. It's an election year, and the Boss is mobilising, employing mainstream producer Ron Aniello to make these big, unambiguous tunes punch hard on modern rock radio.

It is very hard to disagree with Springsteen on substance. Released last month, "We Take Care of Our Own" set the record's inflammatory tone. Has there been a song since "Born in the USA" in which Springsteen has hitched such air-punching music to such vituperative words? "We take care of our own," sneers Springsteen, contrasting the fluttering flag with the betrayed victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Wrecking Ball is not a dyspeptic protest record, however. Springsteen has chosen to smuggle his most explicit critiques of power into songs that rollick and whoop. The title track takes as its starting point the demolition of the New York Giants football stadium. Swiftly, though, it becomes a cheery, brassy last stand against the bulldozers of big money, wherever they may roll.

This is, then, good-time music for bad times. The Pogues-like "Death to My Hometown" uses fiddles, big choruses ("Death to our hometown, boys!"), and even a small explosion to point out that capitalism wreaks more destruction than war. Springsteen has been hanging out with Celtic punk band the Dropkick Murphys, and you can hear it.

More contemplatively, "Jack of All Trades" finds one of Springsteen's stoic blue-collar guys forced into less than dignified labour, keeping hopeful but ending up murderous. "If I had me a gun/ I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight," he concludes. And that's all before the righteous dead start talking on "We Are Alive". Recalling the chatty wormfood of "In Flanders Fields", John McCrae's first world war poem, slain civil rights activists and union protesters end the album by reminding us to hold the torch high. No pressure, then.

For all this tuneful righteousness, you do yearn for some of the oblique strategies of last year's key protest album, PJ Harvey's Let England Shake. "Death to My Hometown" carries African influences as well as the lurch of the Irish, but they are almost lost. Even as you understand Wrecking Ball's aims, the album's calculations are a little too plain to see: its desire to rally too naked, its tropes too worn, its bluntness too blunt. "You've Got It" – a brawny love song – comes as welcome respite from all the tub-thumping. You want this record to sell by the barrowload, but you might not actually want to play it that often.

Contributor

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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