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Review– Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” + Tour Hits LA April 26, 27 2012

April 26, 2012

“Well, it seems like I’m caught up in your trap again

  And it seems like I’ll be wearing the same old chains.
 But good will conquer evil
 And the truth will set me free
 And I know someday I will find the key..”
–From “Trapped”

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band hit the road to share his latest release, The Wrecking Ball; tonight and tomorrow he’ll be in Los Angeles. From all accounts, the shows are as great as ever, even though everyone is missing Clarence Clemons. Tuesdays night show in San Jose went for over 3 hours; not bad for an AARP member!

Stay tuned for reviews of the LA shows; my husband is going to night with a friend and tomorrow he’s taking our 8 year old son. In the short time that the album has been out, both have memorized the songs and they take great joy in belting them out around the house and in the car. During the recent Record Store Day, he scored the collectible pictured of “Rocky Ground.”

In the meantime, here’s a review of The Wrecking Ball by guest blogger Ron Wells who has attended more shows than you can imagine (well over 100, possibly closer to 150 in his many years of being a fan).

If you haven’t bought the album yet, I hope this inspires you to do so, and to sit and listen to it all the way through in one sitting. If you are a Springsteen fan, and you’ve listened to the album many times, I hope Ron’s review will get you to think about it anew. And if you like this post, please say so!

“No one wins, unless everyone wins.”–Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen has said the above quote more than once in concert. He is not naive enough to believe that everyone can win, but that’s still the goal. That’s the hope.
But that wish, that dream, is now under attack. The winners are few and far between. Those not among that group ask, “Where is the promise in the promised land?”
With faith eroding and anger rising, Bruce Springsteen lets forth a fury of frustration and rage in Wrecking Ball seeking some form of salvation for everyone in these cruel, seemingly godforsaken times.
What he has done in a digital age, in which individual songs are downloaded as separate entities, is to create an essentially old school, concept album that is meant to be read like a book, with each song composing a chapter and building off of the one preceding it. Each song details what he, as an artist, sees in the world around him. Whether all of the individual songs work is problematic, but as a whole they paint a coherent picture of today’s brutal world and a person’s place in it. It is not a pretty sight, and yet, somehow, someway, he still finds a slight glimmer of hope.

Still, this is far from the youthful escape of Born to Run, where a group of young guys could hang out, form a band, and with a lot of skill and a little luck, find some success. This is a mature, successful artist looking around and seeing people flailing way while no one does anything to give them a hand up or an even break. And this upsets him, for he remembers when he was growing up in similar circumstances. One does not forget one’s youth that easily, no matter where one ends up in life.

Even before a note is played, the artwork on the cover gives clues as to what is coming. The album art is like some graffiti artist with white paint splashed words on an abandoned storefront glass. Behind this, Bruce stands holding his guitar like some sacred crucifix, his head down as if looking for a place of grace amidst the bleak blackness surrounding him.

Inside, the wires crisscross the floor like some power lines blown down by a storm, while a guitar sits idly on one side and an amp sits grimly on the other side. The disjointed web of wires barely connects, while no human is anywhere to be seen.

And then the music begins.

“We Take Care of Our Own” is one of the few real rock songs on the album, but the questions it raises are more about rocky terrain than rocking out. The question at its core is where is the “promise from sea to shining sea?” Isn’t this the promised land? Isn’t this the belief that every person has always held as sacred, that he or she can work hard and find some measure of success, and if that fails, there will always be other people to help out the less fortunate? With the government and businesses saying that isn’t their responsibility, the person turns to other people and finds that they’re mostly in the same fix, leaving the sick, the elderly, the homeless, the damaged vets to go it on their own. The song becomes ironic in the extreme: Do we take care of our own?

With the stage now set, Bruce moves on to “Easy Money” where the protagonist has seen his whole world “tumbling down”, while the “fat cats just think it’s funny.” Using Irish music, which he does more than once in this album, Springsteen has the man inform us that he has a Smith and Wesson .38, and that he and his woman in her red dress, like some erstwhile Bonnie and Clyde, are going on a “date” looking for easy money. The la-la-la-la chorus makes it almost sound like a children’s song, but this is no child’s play. These are desperate people in desperate times, calling for desperate measures.

The Irish tilt in the music—and don’t the Irish know about the Great Famine, hard times, and the music that can offer some form of escape–continues with “Shackled and Drawn,” a foot stomper that belies its true message. Are those prison shackles the guy from Easy Money is now wearing? Perhaps. And what can he as a “poor boy” do “but keep singing this song” while working on a rock pile, yet up on “banker’s hill the party is still going strong.” Didn’t those same bankers commit criminal acts too? You must be kidding, kid. Lift that boulder and shut up.

The song closes with a sample of Lynn Collins (James Brown produced) “Me and My Baby Got Our Own Thing Going” with a preacher-like refrain of  “I want everybody to stand up and be counted.” Tough to stand up in shackles, but you can bet somebody is doing the counting and it ain’t just Jesus.
This leads into perhaps the most heartbreakingly beautiful song on the album. “Jack of All Trades” is an ode to the common man, to the the worker, to every person. It begins with simple piano notes as Bruce sings in the first person of a man who can do many essential tasks and is proud of it, and yet when a “hurricane” comes his world is going to change. Drought and floods also come, and yet this guy always survives somehow. But this disaster is anthropogenic, not caused by nature. As his life spirals downward, he wonders if anyone can help him “like Jesus said we might.” The key word here is “might.” It echoes the title track. Do we take care of our own? Even as he tries to “take the old and make it new,” the thought crosses his mind that “If I had me a gun, I’d shoot the bastards.” Again, the key word is “if,’” because he doesn’t have a gun, and even “if” he did, who would he shoot?
The quiet piano intro turns into an angry Tom Morello guitar exit. Everyone knows a guy like this. The desperation of these characters is palpable. Heartbreaking only begins to describe it.
And thus we’re lead to “Death in My Hometown,” opening with claps and a choir singing “The Last Words of Copernicus”  in the background, but this song turns and becomes as angry as it gets. For Bruce sings that “no bombs fell from the sky” to kill those who are like the man in “Jack of All Trades.” Rather, these marauders raided in the dark and brought death to the unsuspecting people who never saw the collapse coming. Those who lost their jobs, their homes, or their pensions. The song builds and stomps hard until he sings, “Send the robber barons straight to hell,” the ones who “ate the flesh of everything they found.” Clap your hands, stomp your feet, sing this hard and sing it well: There are criminals on the loose who destroyed humans in order to line their own pockets, and goddamn them for bringing death to our hometowns.

“This Depression” follows, and that pretty much tells you where we are. It’s a slow, leaden song which will never find its way to the pop charts, for it is brutally tormented and sad. Even Bruce’s voice sounds weary as he “confesses” that he’s “had his faith shaken, but never forsaken.” Until now. And so he begs, from a position of weakness, to be given his partner’s heart to carry him through. To make some connection. Not the strongest song on the album, but one of the bleakest and it follows accordingly with everything that went before it as we’ve just about hit bottom.

“Wrecking Ball,” the title track, swings in like a challenge to the destructive forces that have smashed the factories, homes, and buildings which now go vacant in the face of the depression.

“Your hopes and desires are scattered to the wind,” the wrecking ball pounding “our youth and beauty into dust.” Hell, what can you do now except hang on to “your anger” and try not to “give into your fears.”
Horns blare behind voices singing to a fast and tumultuous beat driving into the face of the storm with a sense of bravado and nothing much to lose at this point. And somewhere, Clarence’s sax blows hot and wild in the mix.

There’s no place left to go after all of the above, and so Bruce turns once again to the possibility of love. This may be the weakest song on the album, but it fits here because it’s a release from all that’s gone before it. With everything going or gone, hang on to love, even if it’s reckless, for “it’s precious, so don’t waste it.” This is the last chance, the last dance, to grasp onto that which is “realer than real.”

And following that last grasp, comes the transition, comes the assent.

The attempt to climb back up; get up off the ground. Using Alan Lomax’s field recordings, “I’m a soldier in the the army of the lord” shouts out as “Rocky Ground” opens in arguably the most spiritual/religious song on the album. Biblical passages and sayings abound as we are reminded of the “40 days and nights” of rain, and how Jesus said the “moneychangers will not stand.”

This song weds African-American traditional gospel sounds with rap into a unified mix searching for hope, even though where “you once had faith, now there’s only doubt”  as “silence meets your prayers.” But then in the musical tradition of slaves and the generations that came after them and who stood up to adversity with faith, the choir sings “there’s a new day coming.”
Springsteen, no matter now dark the night seems, always finds a way to reach back, find a musical connection, and seek out the light. “Rocky Road” defines where we’ve been, then gives us the hope to keep moving on, no matter what the terrain.

Appropriately enough, this melds into the still strong and vibrant studio version of “Land of Hope and Dreams.” The song attempts to unify all of us if we’ll just join together and not stand alone any longer. A single voice is joined by a choir, until the band kicks in and lifts everyone up even though “you don’t know where you’re going.” But you have to leave behind your sorrows, no matter how horrific they’ve been, and join in on this train because “tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past.” And just as you’re beginning  to feel the strength to finally raise your head once more “because faith will be rewarded,” you hear the saxophone of Clarence Clemons blowing from up on high and you don’t know whether to smile or cry. “Faith  will be rewarded!” You don’t need no ticket on this train, but “people get ready” is the call and response. You are not alone. Join your spirit with others, get on board, and reach for the light.

“We Are Alive” is the benediction and reminder once more that you are not alone, ever. For even in death the spirits of all of those who have fought and died are not dead, but are carrying the fire to light the spark within the living.

Here Bruce summons the spirit of Walt Whitman and John Steinbeck in the belief that there is an oversoul that embraces and encompasses all souls, dead or alive.
With the guitar and horns echoing “Ring of Fire” the song rises, pulling us up from the ashes to be embraced by the universe, and each other. It ends with the guitarist walking off, strumming his guitar, whistling. His job done. His story told.
Like the ghost of Woody Guthrie, he looks for another train to hop, another town to visit, more people to sing the truth to.
You will take from this album what you will, depending on where you are in your life’s journey. It may or may not be Bruce’s greatest album, but its vision is clear, its story cohesive and true. Some of the songs you may want to skip, but you can’t ignore any of them. Bruce Springsteen, a man who has achieved much commercial success in his life, is and always will be an artist of note. He has held up a mirror to society and shown us what he sees. He has written this book in music and verse.

There are songs here of transcendent power. There are insights here that some other artists might miss. There is music that you can dance to, and music that will make you cry.

Maybe everyone doesn’t win, but thank God Bruce Springsteen still has ability to make us believe, through all of the horror this world throws at us, through all of the anger we are feeling, that there is still hope. There is hope if we take care of each other. If we lift each other up. If we stand up in the face of despair and declare that as long as we’re breathing, as long as we can fight, and with a little mercy, we’ll be alright…..

In closing, here’s a clip from the March 29 show in Philadelphia where Bruce does a little “Dancing in the Dark” onstage with his 86 year old mom.
For more Bruce Springsteen and tour news, check out his site on WordPress! And check around here–that’s lots of great Springsteen posts (click on the large tag in the cloud!) as well as more posts to come as my Springsteen moles share the news with me so I can share it here with you.

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