Boy oh boy this is a painful one. Everybody loves Bruce Springsteen, right? His politics are sound, and he wears his big emphatic heart on his sleeve with so much courage—or with such an indifference to Being Cool so as to mimic courage—and his intentions I can only assume are good. But those good intentions and that big heart, and those solid politics can’t help Wrecking Ball overcome itself.
God, it’s so forced sounding. Springsteen is seemingly trying to capitalize on his late-career masterwork We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions—a warm and inviting album that had all of the inclusive goodwill and human feeling that Wrecking Ball lacks. It’s a full-band album that sounds completely sterile and lonely and, frankly, passionless. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t shoot for passion—it does, but it does so in such a clumsy and halfassed way that all you get is the illusion of passion. Wrecking Ball borrows freely from all the signifiers of anthemic music—handclaps, gospel choirs, choruses that mimic Celtic drinking songs—but lacks any genuine anthemic feelings. What you get instead are songs with all the limp piousness I typically associate with U2. For all their plastic uplift, nearly all of these songs could be commercials for Levi’s, or Corvettes. That what they’re selling is political outrage and spiritual release doesn’t make up for their basic cheapness.
But here’s the thing: Springsteen, whose default setting has always been a kind of skywide melodrama, is so good at this kind of thing he still almost sells it. The hypermaudlin blue collar lament “Jack Of All Trades” is essentially treacle, a piano ballad that features a swelling “Taps”style horn outro and an obnoxiously Noble and Serious guitar solo from Tom Morello, and despite its basic corniness and overcooked earnestness, there is something in Springsteen’s basic goodness, his inherent likeability, that makes me (almost) believe that it’s not as mannered and manipulative as any Steven Spielberg movie. The song—as with most of the album—does nothing to earn what it expects from us, save to ape whatever easiest indicators of “emotion” it can, and hopefully win us over regardless of whether or not it actually deserves our investment.
Probably the only point where Wrecking Ball truly hits what it was aiming for is on “We Take Care Of Our Own”, the opening track and lead single. It’s burnished and shined and gleaming as any other track on the album, but it’s also home to the only moments on the album where it doesn’t sound like Springsteen is trying as hard as he can to be meaningful. It mimics in its own way his old “Born In The USA” ruse: the song is a huge flagwaver, the title sung over and over, building and building. We have the handclaps and the chorus of increasingly joyful voices rising together in song, etc, but the lurking undertone is of course the rotten bitterness and discontent of a dream betrayed. There is a complete and black irony at the heart of the track, it has real teeth, real anger. Something I wish the rest of Wrecking Ball could have given us. Or me at least.