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.
When Springsteen isn’t painting WPA murals, he tries out biblical scenes. The Wrecking Ball lyric sheet is full of abstract nouns and gospel inflections: Dreams and Faith and Hope and Promises, with an occasional Calvary Hill or Canaan tossed in for good measure. It’s startling to realize that Springsteen, of all people, has forgotten what a big payoff you can get by going small. Consider an earlier song about lean times, Born in the USA’s “Downbound Train” (1984):
I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going, mister, in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the carwash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t it feel like you’re a rider
On a downbound train?
The image of a “downbound train,” borrowed from Chuck Berry, hits the note of timeless Americana that Springsteen strains for in Wrecking Ball; the storytelling is vivid, moving, compact; and, lo and behold, there’s even a joke: that rainy carwash. Compare the focused first-person narration in “Downbound Train” with Wrecking Ball, where Springsteen often sings in the royal—or, rather, the proletarian—we: “We take care of our own,” “We’ve been traveling over rocky ground,” “We made the steel that built the cities with the sweat of our two hands.” It’s a symptom of Springsteen’s ambition: In “We Are Alive” he sings about striking 19th-century railroad workers, ’60s civil rights martyrs, and Mexican migrants. That’s a lot of “we” to cover in a single verse.
Today’s best political art tries to do less, and accomplishes more. From The Colbert Report to The Onion to the endless flurry of viral Internet protests, we’re living in a golden age of left-leaning pop culture—but it’s darker, funnier, more mischievous, more willing to offend than the Boss is. This week, the sly alt-country troubadour Todd Snider, best know for his great anti-George W. Bush anthem “You Got Away With It,” has released his own Great Recession-themed album, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables. Snider’s record is as infuriated as Wrecking Ball, and far more sharp-fanged. “Ain’t it a son of a bitch,” he drawls. “To think that we would still need religion/ To keep the poor from killing the rich.” Agnostic Hymns is also a riot. In “In Between Jobs” Snider hilariously crunches the numbers on the 99 percent-1 percent divide—a joke that hits harder than any of Springsteen’s harangues:
If I had a nickel
For every dime you had
I’d have half of your money
You talk about not half-bad
More like, ten times as good
I don’t know anyone that wouldn’t want to hold on
To all that they had if they could
If you could just come off a little bit of money, though
That would surely do me good
Nothing on Wrecking Ball comes close to that. The album does have a couple of moments, though. One is the whooping title track, the closest thing to an old-fashioned Springsteen story-song—which is odd, since it’s narrated by Giants Stadium. Then there’s “You’ve Got It,” where Springsteen turns to a subject that’s served him well: sex. It’s a snarling country blues, lean, loud, and lascivious. (“Ain’t no one can fake it/ You just know it when you feel it … Baby you’ve got it/ Come on and give it to me.”) Springsteen sounds like a dirty old man. It’s refreshing.
“You’ve Got It” is instructive: Springsteen might make a better record if he was, or at least pretended to be, less of a mensch. Politically, morally, Wrecking Ball is admirable. What other star of comparable stature puts so much muscle, puts such a big blaring sound, behind songs about the poor? Who can doubt that Springsteen’s heart is in the right place? Artistically, though, Springsteen has reached a cul-de-sac. His road, you might say, has gone dry as a bone.