Here’s the good news: The new Bruce Springsteen album, Wrecking Ball, sounds fantastic. It’s a big, barrel-chested, middle-linebacker of a record; it hits you hard, it rings your bell. Springsteen has spent the last decade trying to update his music, seeking a compromise between digital-age production and the roaring classic rock sound of his E Street Band records. He’s found the golden mean here. Wrecking Ball, produced by Springsteen and the modern rock stalwart Ron Aniello, feels like a vintage Bruce album—it has thickness, sweep, heft—but it crackles with contemporary flourishes. Sonically, it’s as ambitious as any Springsteen record since Born to Run; it’s also less fusty, more pop, than anything since Born in the USA. It’s an Americana record that isn’t afraid to live in 2012.
The songs take in folk, blues, country, but they pile on samples, synthesizers, orchestral strings. There are hip-hop beats and horn arrangements that nod to mariachi and Stax-Volt soul. The gospel homily “Rocky Ground” includes a rap; amazingly, it kinda works. Springsteen’s influence is audible in the music of many young rock bands, and on Wrecking Ball, the master borrows back from his pupils. In the rollicking “Death of My Hometown,” Springsteen channels the Dropkick Murphys, with pennywhistles tooting over a rocked-up Celtic reel; the wailing background vocals in “Wrecking Ball” are pure Arcade Fire. Even when Springsteen and Aniello drag out a black gospel choir—traditionally, the last refuge of white rockers straining to signal that they’re saying something big and important—it sounds terrific.
But the good news ends there. Wrecking Ball, as you may have heard, is Springsteen’s Occupy Wall Street record, a broadside aimed at the 1 percent, living “fat and easy up on Banker’s Hill.” As protest, it’s dead on arrival: Springsteen has no feel for what makes effective agitprop in 2012. As art, it’s a failure. It’s the work of a man who has forgotten what he’s good at.
The trouble starts right away, with the album-opener, “We Take Care of Our Own,” a song about the betrayal of the American social compact. “From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/ We yelled ‘help’ but the cavalry stayed home/ There ain't no one hearing the bugle blown,” Springsteen yelps. The language is awkward and inert. Sometimes, Springsteen’s metaphors get comically scrambled up: “The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone.” What’s worse is the tone. Springsteen sings in the flat Dust Bowl Okie accent he has affected for three decades whenever he’s channeling The Voice of the Common Man. The result is as hectoring, as sodden, as painfully earnest as “If I Had A Hammer.” “We Take Care of our Own” rumbles hard, but it still may give you nightmare visions of that Peter, Paul, and Mary concert your parents dragged you to.
Springsteen has always been a social realist—often, a brilliant one, with songs that captured the fine-grain texture of everyday lives. Here, though, he sounds like a socialist realist. The songs veer into proletarian kitsch: “Freedom, son, is a dirty shirt/ The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt.” On his best records, Springsteen was simply a storyteller: He wrote about the white working class because that’s what interested him, that’s the world he knew best. In recent years, self-consciousness has taken hold; he’s never sounded so dutiful about his role as bard of the masses. Listening to Wrecking Ball, I was reminded of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, in which the successful Hollywood comedy director decides to make O, Brother Where Art Thou, a film that will capture the plight of the Great Depression downtrodden. In “Jack of All Trades” Springsteen intones: “I’ll hammer the nails, and I’ll set the stone/ I’ll harvest your crops when they’re ripe and grown … The banker man grows fat, the working man grows thin/ It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again.” O, brother.