Few artists are able to produce content that spans the course of decades and remain not only relevant but interesting at the same time. Even among those that do hang in there, the world seems to pass them by whether or not they are creating great work. The music industry is pretty unforgiving, where the “new sound” is always being sought to replace the old guys with the newer, more money-friendly acts.
I’m always a bit nervous to pick up a new album with new songs put out by my favorite classic rockers. I’m excited for the new music, but I hate when new albums end up feeling flat and tired. I’ve bought enough of them to know what that sounds like. I’m sure you have, too.
But that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you end up with a true gem. Rarer still, as with Bruce Springsteen’s 2012 album Wrecking Ball, you end up with Rolling Stone’s album of the year and three Grammy nominations.
It’s been four years since this album’s release, but I’ve always wanted to go back and take an in-depth look at it. There’s just so much to take away from it, so much that it teaches that I want to talk about. Let’s jump in.
A Melting Pot of Music
One of the most interesting things about this album is the sheer diversity of musical styles present. It’s not just stadium rock. There are awesome Irish folk rock tunes, hip hop beats, gospel, acoustic jams, appearances by Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) and Matt Chamberlain (Soundgarden/Pearl Jam), and, of course, some stadium rock. While longtime E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons passed away in 2011, he still appears on two tracks.
It’s easy for albums combining this many elements to sound disjointed and chaotic, but Wrecking Ball never does. The songs tie together beautifully. What makes it all fall into place is that when the album changes in sound or tempo, there’s still that cohesive theme across the entire album that helps you feel each song belongs exactly where it’s placed.
Emotional Stepping Stones
The layout of the songs helps pull you through the album. There’s a very logical story progression happening. Springsteen often uses characters in his music, sometimes recurring characters. Overwhelmingly, these characters are social or economic outcasts.
So let’s approach this the same way and view these songs as mini-stories about different characters: snapshots of where the country was in 2012. I actually tend to view this album as one character, tracking the different stages over the hard times coming and going. It’s not meant that way, but it’s an interesting way to listen to the album. Give it a try.
Times have hit pretty hard. Things are getting bad, and help isn’t coming from nowhere. So we start with “Taking Care of Our Own”, looking at all of these supposed lifesavers designed to take care of those in need but leave so many out. We say we take care of our own, but so many end up down and out, doing absolutely anything to stay afloat (“Easy Money”, “Shackled and Drawn”, “Jack of All Trades”).
Naturally, anger sets in. We start to see that this wasn’t caused by those outside our borders, but by our leaders and wealthy (“Death to My Hometown”). And, unfortunately for so many, anger often leads to depression (“This Depression”).
We’ve seen some darkness in the middle of this album, but sometimes things turn around. “Wrecking Ball” is the start of that. This is defiance – yeah, this all sucks, and yeah, we’re still mad. But whatever. Bring it on. “You’ve Got It” might seem like the most out of place song on the album at first glance, but it very much deals with the same idea as “Wrecking Ball.” It’s this idea that about recognizing individuality, and that uniqueness is something no one can steal. It’s about reveling in those things, enjoying them, and loving them.
The last three songs are powerful, and they come from deep inside. This is where we deal with the soul, and recognizing where we’ve been and where we are now. “Rocky Ground” is that looking-back part. This is where we look back on what we’ve been through, and how hard it was. It’s where you recognize that “I’m a soldier” and that “we’ve been traveling over rocky ground,” but “a new day is coming.”
“Land of Hope and Dreams” is that song of hope. This is what we want to be, as people and as a nation. We want to be able to love and care for all the “saints and sinners”, the “losers and winners”, even the “fools and kings.” It’s a call for all of us to board that train and meet in that ideal America.
We end with “We Are Alive.” While this song has some interesting imagery dealing with death, it really carries a hopeful tone. I think it’s less about the death, and more about the rising (reference not really intended), hence the title. This is the part where we come out on the other side, where what was killing us – holding us down – is gone.
All of these songs are different reactions to a similar situation, and they are filled with raw and very relate-able emotion. There’s a tight cohesion in the story behind the songs that ties this album together, making it an incredible journey through so many different musical styles. This is an album, maybe more so than any in recent memory, that needs to be listened to as a whole to appreciate its importance.
Music of the Time, For All Times
While the themes in Wrecking Ball very much rise from where our country was at the time, they are universal enough that I don’t really need to highlight any of that. Unfortunately enough, many of the themes we still struggle with. It’s obvious that the economic downturn of the late 2000’s and into the 2010’s heavily influences all of the songs on this album.
It’s the main theme of the album, and each song approaches it from a different angle. You’ll find the songs sarcastic in tone (“We Take Care of Our Own”), the songs that come from a darker place (“This Depression”), the downright pissed-off songs (“Wrecking Ball”, “Death to My Hometown”), but also the songs that highlight hope and that the most satisfying payoffs aren’t economic at all (“Land of Hope and Dreams”, “You’ve Got It”).
And that’s where this album shines. We’re not focusing only on the down and out. We acknowledge that. We’re upset that good times are gone, that the irresponsibility and neglect of others led to the problems we’re facing. We jeer those red, white, and blue cliches like how much we take care of our own. We break down. But we still love. We still hope. We still believe that this can be a land of hopes and dreams. We hope and pray that the hard times come and go. We carry on.
Those are ideas that never die. No matter how good times are for the majority, there are always those struggling with every single situation (and emotion) in this album. While we may want this album to become antiquated someday, for it to no longer be needed, that probably won’t happen. I think that is what this album is about. What we want versus what we have. And it displays all of this to perfection.