One of the things that made the great Bruce records great was Springsteen’s ability to evoke and inhabit an extraordinary array of characters. In the classic albums, who can forget the guy waiting for Mary (and destiny itself) in “Thunder Road” or those restless souls driving toward adulthood in Darkness on the Edge of Town? I’m still haunted by the young men contemplating a life of claustrophobic resignation in “Jackson Cage” or the guy who gets Mary
pregnant in “The River.” Driving late at night, I often think of the rattled man who goes home and pulls his woman close after seeing the “Wreck on the Highway.” The unnamed Vietnam vet lost in the reverb of having been “Born in the USA” has himself become a national icon. These men (and they are almost all men, which is a separate but important issue) are steeped in the details of place, occupation, family, and community. This pattern goes all the way back to the beginning with Springsteen. I still think I’d know Crazy Janie, Wild Billy, and Hazy Davey if I saw them crawl out of Greasy Lake today.
The quality of Springsteen’s cinemagraphic lyrical world, long suffering, has officially come to an end with his latest album, Wrecking Ball. This album has no characters, let alone great ones, except for one: an Americana (not even a real America) both gauzy and tattered crushed by the ironfist of neoliberalism. You can wake up “shackled and drawn,” as he sings, but unless we know something about your life besides the cliched “sweat on your shirt,” it’s more of what made Pete Seeger semi-great than what made Bruce Springsteen truly great. The track “Death to My Hometown,” for instance, is completely placeless—very much unlike the town the boy saw from his father’s lap steering through “My Hometown” that was later reduced to “white washed window and vacant stores.”
Wrecking Ball begins with a myth that is basically a lie: “we take care of our own—wherever this flag is flown.” The flag here is such an empty gesture—very different from the contested symbol in “Born in the USA.” There’s not even enough content here to tell what “we take care of our own” means: we should take care of our own, we might, we used to, we would if we could, we only take care of our own and nobody else? Ugh. The rest of the song makes clear that we don’t take care of our own. Point? I don’t know. And who are “our own”? I believe in a national narrative more than the next academic guy, but what the hell does that flag and “us” mean in the global age? This song, the one that got all the pre-release hype, is like a Springsteen car wreck—parts and metaphors all over the place with nothing holding them together (and the opportunity to say that they’re scattered all over the place with no coherence, which would be genius, is lost).
(The one place he does attempt a clear evocation of place is in the title track about the destruction of Giants Stadium. This is a failure of metaphor on a colossal scale.)
There are glimmers of those old characters in Wrecking, such as “Jack of All Trades,” which features a man drained of occupational identity who will nonetheless survive cleaning gutters and tinkering on cars. But the bottom line is that without the narrative drive of good characterization, this is just ham-fisted politics. And these twangy politics went out decades ago—like with The Weavers.
The other thing that made great Bruce albums great was the music, and here things get less interesting than the characters and their missing stories. Springsteen finally ended his barren relationship with Brendan O’Brien, and with Wrecking Ball there are a few attempts to branch out—gospel traces, mechanical loops, Irish-ness, country-ishness, violin accents, some Tom Morello riffs, and even some hip hop. Most of it is more gimmick than reconfiguration, but he seems to know that he needs to get out of his Bruceness. “Rocky Ground” is by far the most musically interesting, and I applaud absolutely anything that gets this guy into the lab of acoustic experimentation. But he needs to go so much further: he needs to experiment with new idioms, new influences, new genres. Maybe if he went to Mexico or Cuba, Turkey or Greece, hell, Austin or Seattle.
After the track “Rocky Ground” breaks the monotony of the first nine tracks, we get a reworked “Land of Hope and Dreams”—a great live staple that is one of the most beautiful evocations of a gospel-fueled collective destiny ever written. He then drains the life out of it by starting with a drum machine. In the live recording, I can see, no feel, the train of outcasts going through “fields where sunlight streams” but in this reworking, the majesty of that collective vision is never met. It’s pretty tough to do neo-authentic gospel revivalism with a beat box—and I got nothing against beat boxes per se. It doesn’t work even if you’re tossing in a little Curtis Mayfield quotes and a big chorus for sweeteners. The record ends with “American Land,” another live staple, which I was not able to stomach in the last few tours. It sounded tired the first time I heard it. The song smacks too much of the “Roots, Too” ethnic revivalism (see Matthew Frye Jacobsen) that has a reactionary pallor (unintended, I’ll admit) that makes my toenails curl.
Bruce is angry, and he damn well should be. And it’s tough getting old. But it hasn’t stopped Neil Young from experimenting, and it shouldn’t stop him. The albums, as all Springsteen fans know, are merely dress rehearsals for the live performances so maybe there’s some hope (that’s how he saved Devils and Dust). I still look forward to the tour, but await an album that doesn't just broadcast about social problems but actually evokes them lyrically and musically. Or maybe an album that does something new all together. This may or may not be his best album in years, but he really seems to have been trying this time. And that's the problem.
In sum, Bruce, I love you, man, but you need some new material.