Bruce Springsteen has spent nearly 40 years writing songs that define every-schlub humanism in rock music. And yet when he sang, on the first single from his 17th studio album, Wrecking Ball, “we take care of our own / wherever this flag’s flown,” he didn’t get the benefit of the doubt from some people. The assumption was that Springsteen had suddenly morphed into a wing-nut xenophobe—which is sort of like thinking that Jay-Z and Kanye West are now registered French citizens based on “Niggas In Paris.”
If you disregard Springsteen’s history of progressive politics, his activism, and large swaths of his discography, then, yes, the rally-friendly chorus of “We Take Care Of Our Own” might seem like pandering. The reality is that Springsteen’s complicated embrace of patriotism—an old theme in his work that’s once again prominent on Wrecking Ball—occupies the same space as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” celebrating the possibilities of the American Dream while acknowledging the pain of its failures. This is a more nuanced viewpoint than we’re used to in the cable-news era. If Springsteen won’t pick sides, we’ll pick one for him: “We Take Care Of Our Own”—which puts forward the radical idea that poor people are actually worthy of dignity and respect—must either be nationalistic posturing or socialist dogma. It can’t simply be what it is: a plea for common decency, with extra emphasis on common.
Springsteen’s enemy here, as always, is cynicism: It’s about not giving up on the hope that we’ll live up to our better selves, or pretending that we’re already living the dream and stepping on people in the process. Springsteen says it more eloquently in Wrecking Ball’s title track: “Hold tight to your anger / and don’t fall to your fears.” For Springsteen, fear leads to self-defeat via a retreat inward; with Wrecking Ball, he tries to batter down those walls, both political and musical.
Springsteen entered the 21st century as an anachronism, after seeming lost in the ironic ’90s and failing to navigate the fragments carved into a culture he once dominated. He rebounded with surprising strength in the ’00s by reconnecting with who he was: an old-world, mass-appeal rock star in search of an audience still willing to crawl out of their niches every once in a while. In the process he even became hip again for the first time since the mid-’70s, though indie kids tended to connect with his most indie-like album, 1982’s Nebraska, rather than the brawny, blue-collar, beer-chugging rock that made him famous.
Wrecking Ball is a mainstream rock record because that’s what Bruce Springsteen does—even if, as a culture, we’ve come to regard centrism in our music with the same distrust we have for it in politics. Springsteen outfits his songs with booming drums, squealing guitar solos, violins, banjos, trumpets, pianos, pots, pans, and every available hard surface at Bruce’s home studio. (He even attempts a sort-of rap song, “Rocky Ground,” though he gets a mulligan for that one in exchange for writing “Independence Day.”) The Boss is out to inspire the masses and fill our empty arenas with big crowds and bigger sounds, because somebody has to, right?
The most obvious reference point for Wrecking Ball is 2002’s The Rising, Springsteen’s de rigueur September 11 record, only this time, the attacks are financial in nature and come from within. On The Rising, Springsteen made himself an emblem of hope and integrity, a role with which he’s commonly associated—but contrary to his he-man image, he’s never seemed 100 percent comfortable with it. Springsteen is better when he starts small and works his way out; his songs shrink when he goes in reverse.
Wrecking Ball doesn’t always play to Springsteen’s strengths. He revives the Rising-era gospel-flavored live favorite “Land Of Hope And Dreams,” a self-conscious anthem that paints broadly rendered populist imagery about a train carrying “losers and winners” to a mythical place beyond the stars. It’s an uplifting statement, especially live, but “Land Of Hope And Dreams” is a stump speech, not an artfully rendered short story, and doesn’t invite the deeply personal connections that Springsteen’s best songs forge. (The same can be said, to a lesser degree, of “We Take Care Of Our Own,” though the whomping beat and cinematic string swooshes are rousing in an inescapably Pavlovian sense.)
At its best, Wrecking Ball follows the model of 2006’s ramshackle hootenanny, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, where Springsteen took dusty folk songs and blew them the hell out to the cheap seats. This time the folk songs originate with Springsteen, who has filled them with broken men with murder in their hearts. “Easy Money” starts out in “Atlantic City” territory, with an unnamed narrator inviting his woman out for a night on the town and away from their daily burdens. But where “Atlantic City” is heavy with resignation, “Easy Money” is a maniacally jaunty Irish-folk number powered by handclaps and giddy proclamations about carrying a “Smith & Wesson .38” on your hip and “hellfire burning” in your belly. The guy in “Easy Money” isn’t doing any “little favors” for anybody; he’s out to take what’s his—and if it’s by force, all the better.
“Jack Of All Trades” is a seemingly more dignified fable about a handyman (“I’ll mow your lawn / clean the leaves out your drain”) whose anger at the rich bubbles shockingly to the surface in the final verse (“If I had me a gun / I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight”) as a guitar solo from guest star Tom Morello explodes out of the stately piano melody. While “Jack Of All Trades” sounds like a funeral, the St. Patty’s Day penny-whistle march of “Death To My Hometown” is the wake, with Springsteen slipping into a well-soused brogue and leading a charge to “send the robber barons straight to hell.”
If Wrecking Ball consisted only of revenge fantasies on the 1 percent, Springsteen really would be the heartland caricature his detractors paint him as. But anger is only one stage of grief explored on Wrecking Ball, which in its latter half veers into depression (the Arcade Fire-like, self-explanatory dirge “This Depression”), acceptance (the whisper-to-a-scream title track) and, on the last song, “We Are Alive,” resurrection. With its insistent acoustic strum and Springsteen’s ghostly vocal going on about spirits being lifted out of dark graves by the forces of social justice, “We Are Alive” sounds like an apparition from another time delivering a message of warmth and wisdom for those who choose to hear it. By going wide like only he can on Wrecking Ball, Springsteen does the same.