Least to Most: Bruce – Wrecking Ball

“After the crash of 2008, I was furious at what had been done by a handful of trading companies on Wall Street. Wrecking Ball was a shot of anger at the injustice that continues on and has widened with deregulation, dysfunctional regulatory agencies and capitalism gone wild at the expense of hardworking Americans.”

After the relative mid-tempo doze that was his last studio album, a few years passed before a new effort from Mr Springsteen arrived and he certainly seemed more fired up and focused for the break. According the The Boss, it was on a drive home from a local bar that “Easy Money” came to him and the muse materialised for most of the material that would appear on this, his seventeenth studio album.

wreckingballI don’t necessarily dislike Wrecking Ball. There’s some very strong songs on here and it’s great to hear a change, sonically, in Bruce’s material. It’s hard to put my finger on what it is that doesn’t push this album higher up in my favourites and I’m not alone here, even Bruce mused “Wrecking Ball was received with a lot less fanfare than I thought it would be. I was sure I had it. I still think I do and did. Maybe my voice has been compromised by my own success, but I don’t think so.”

Personally, I think it’s down to the production. I think Bruce perhaps lost his nerve when it came to producing his own music – he’s said himself that when he initially tried recording something with the E Street Band post-reunion, the results were flat – hence calling Brendan O’Brien for The Rising. Unfortunately, he later called Ron Aniello and began a partnership that has resulted in some of my least favourite output.

The songs that make up Wrecking Ball are strong and gritty. The first half of the album specifically tackles the economic blight that followed the 2008 crash. Yet rather than give these songs a good, gritty recording or even bare-bones them and let the lyrics speak for themselves, they’re covered in ‘ticks and gimmicks’ – IMHO.

I know that he’d just produced Patti Scialfa’s Play It Where It Lays but I still to this day wonder what it was about his back catalogue (Lifehouse, Jars of Clay, Candlebox) that made Bruce place his music in Ron’s hands. The stapled-on soul / gospel parts of ‘Shackled and Drawn’ (“I want everybody to stand up and be counted tonight, you know we got to praaaay together”) and ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ rub the wrong way, as does the overly prevalent use of drum machines / loops. It seems to jolt too much with the force of the more organic sounding music that tears along like some pumped, stadium-ready, celtic folk-rock dervish and suits the anger that Bruce is trying to convey.

Take the kick-off ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, does it need the echo on his voice?

This album more than any since shows the influence of the Seegar Sessions in terms of instrumentation – there’s a real Celtic lean to a the opening clutch of songs but with a lot more punch and wallop. At times it brings to mind the Dropkick Murphys – ‘Death To My Hometown’ especially – and he sings with a lot more urgency and earnestness than he had on Working On A Dream.

Regarding the choice of music Bruce said he “used a lot of music from the 1800s and the 1930s to show these things are cyclical. The album is resonant with history.”

Resonant with history is a good choice of phrase. There’s some of his own on here with the revisiting of ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’* and the recasting of ‘Wrecking Ball’ into an album track.

Now… this is something that a lot of people have raised issue with and I kinda understand their points. ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ has been slighted in its handling. Yes, it’s Bruce’s song and up to him to do as he sees fit with it but; this was an E Street Band song, 14 years old at the point it was recorded and had been a staple of almost every show since the reunion tour on which it made its début . Steven Van Zandt considered it “a wonderful reintroduction of what has become a very different E Street Band. We just opened with it the other night, and the whole fucking stadium took off.”

Live it was a sprawling epic, a soulful, uplifting song of hope – it’s also my go-to first play if I haven’t picked up my guitar for a bit – and I admit I did often wonder what it would sound like if the band recorded under a producer willing to tighten the bolts up a bit. Unfortunately the band didn’t record it. Only two members feature, with the remaining parts played by Bruce and Ron and session drummer Matt Chamberlain replaces Max Weinberg. Given that they’d played it nightly for over a decade prior and then had to play it on the subsequent tour, I can’t help but wonder how the band felt on that one. Max thumps the shit out of the drums on this live, especially. Then it was decided to fade it in and out around more ‘stapled-on’ gospel singers (I have nothing against gospel our soul singers, if I need to make that clear) singing parts of “People Get Ready”. To me it was as if Bruce was trying too hard to frame his music / emphasis the points it was trying to make.

Here’s both versions for comparison:

Those that did make the cut were Van Zandt’s mandolin and Clarence Clemons, which brings me to another point…It was while recording Wrecking Ball that Bruce had been trying to reach Clarence to arrange a recording session. Specifically the sax solo on ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’. When Clarence did get back to Bruce he was feeling ill and it became the first and only time in which the Big Man bowed out of a scheduled session. No worries.. we’ll pick it up when you’re feeling stronger. Bruce went away on holiday with his wife and it was then that he got the call that Clarence had suffered a massive stroke. He passed not long after, something Bruce refers to as “like losing the rain.”

In the period that followed Ron Aneillo assembled the sax part on ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ from recordings of the live version. When Bruce heard it he said it was though Clarence was in the room. It remains the song’s highlight. I just feel it was a missed opportunity to capture the punch that the band bring to it.

Wrecking Ball‘ was the other ‘old’ song to grace the album it gave it its title to. It had been written on the eve of the E Street Band’s final shows at Giants Stadium in 2009, after which it was to be tore down. As such it was a ‘road song’ written for the band. To quote Mr Van Zandt again: “They tend to take on a very comfortable arrangement because they’re being written for the live band and with the live band. It’s not like he’s going home in between and writing it and demo’ing it and showing it to the band later. He’s playing us the song backstage on his acoustic guitar, just like the old days. Songs like that take on a different sort of immediacy because they’re literally being worked up at soundcheck”.

It’s a strong song that’s become about much more – facing the hard shit that life can throw and actually daring it to bring it on. It’s the closest to the E Street Band playing as you’ll find – though Van Zandt himself doesn’t feature. I think at this point he was likely busy with ‘Lilyhammer’ (a show I do wish would make a return).

I mention the lack of E Streeters for a couple of reasons. First is that I think with Wrecking Ball, Bruce found the key to making ‘rock’ music with musicians outside of the band and still having it been accepted by his audience. That key being; feature some of them on a couple of tracks and tour the album with them. There’s no Garry Tallent or Roy Bittan and Nils Lofgren found his plectrums half-inched by Tom Morello. They’d all play the arse off of them on the following tour though.

The other reason is that Bruce has a new album in the works – well, it’s been delayed by the steady expansion of the current E Street tour in support of The River‘s box set. Both Bruce and Jon Landau have been at pains to point out that it’s a solo album and not an acoustic one, that it is “in fact, a very expansive record, a very rich record. It’s one of Bruce’s very creative efforts”. Given that he’s also been working with Ron Aniello (sigh) on it, Wrecking Ball‘s sound and lineup perhaps serve as the biggest indicator as to what, sonically, we might be in for.

Some criticism lobbed at Wrecking Ball accused it of being top-heavy and sonically uninteresting. For me the album gets better after ‘Jack of All Trades‘ (tepid, Bruce by numbers with added Morello). Aside from those already mentioned, songs from this point are solid – ‘Rocky Ground’ brings to mind the groove he mastered with ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ and features a Springsteen-penned rap, ‘This Depression’  originally considered to reference the economical could now be seen as Bruce praising Pati during the large depression of his own he was going through and the strange, ode to the dead that is ‘We Are Alive’:  “A party filled with ghosts. It’s a party filled with the dead, but whose voices and spirit and ideas remain with us.”

For my money – lose ‘Easy Money’, ‘Shackled and Drawn’, cut some of the effects and promote ‘Swallowed Up (In The Belly of a Whale)’ and  ‘American Land’ from bonus to full-album track and you’d have an absolute belter of an album with more of a sonic palette and a real barn-storming closer. Indeed, it’s how it plays on my iPod. But, then; everyone’s a critic….

Highlights: ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, ‘Death To My Hometown’, ‘Wrecking Ball’, ‘Rocky Ground’, ‘This Depression’, ‘We Are Alive’ and the bonus tracks

Not-so Highlights: ‘Jack of all Trades’

*’Land of Hope and Dreams’ was one of two new songs featured on the reunion tour Live In NYC album alongside ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’. The newer studio version of the latter was also cut during Wrecking Ball sessions and would later have Tom Morello dubbed onto it for release on High Hopes. Bruce, at the time, said that he wanted to give these live staples a more ‘official’ release but these are both songs that, I think, were better left – like ‘Seeds’ – in their original versions.