Gambling is dice, not scratch cards; work is shoveling, not shelf-stacking; and the rallying call in “Death to My Hometown” is solely directed at the “boys.” The world in Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, released this week, is archaic and unreal, but the songs are intended for right now.
Wrecking Ball is a political album, yet it is far from a fully formed manifesto. Though they worked together in 2006, Bruce Springsteen is not Pete Seeger and has never really been a party man. He vocally supported Obama during the 2008 campaign but says he won’t be doing so this time. He has praised Occupy for rousing indignation, wrote to a local New Jersey newspaper last year praising its coverage of budget cuts and poverty, and is poetic about labor, but has broken pickets to perform. Last week he described his new album as being inspired by an “angry patriotism.” It isn’t constructed around an explicit position, but it is political in its uncompromising assertion of values. Quibbles abound about which side Springsteen is really on, but as is often demonstrated by Orwell’s legacy (and by the political history of Springsteen’s 1984 single “Born in the U.S.A.”), sticking your flag in the sand is no remedy for preventing co-option by adversaries.
Springsteen’s music has always been driven by the kind of hypocrisy-shaming that has fuelled many of Occupy’s most engaging actions so far: the American Dream doesn’t exist, it declares—not for the majority of us, anyway. Springsteen is most compelling when heartbroken, and Wrecking Ball is an expression of betrayal. His indignantly growled vocals are backed up through the album by handclaps and choirs of gospel singers. The arrangements represent a collective ferment, making clear that he is not speaking solely for himself: many share his anger.
“We Take Care of Our Own,” the album’s opening number and first single, is an appeal for a freedom based on social justice. “Where’s the work that’ll set my hands, my soul, free?” he asks, part of a succession of questions that leave no doubt about the intended irony of the anthemic chorus. Part of the album’s message—when did we forget that working together is a good thing?—is laid out clearly, but the song falls down in its lack of specificity. Bruce is best at characters, and this first song only comes to life once the “we” and “our own” have been fleshed out later in the album.
The strongest section of Wrecking Ball begins with the fourth track, “Jack of All Trades,” a ballad of precarity in which our hero puts faith in his own versatility as a worker to keep his “darling” safe even as the uncertainty of a new world looms. Springsteen sings, “The banker man grows fat, the working man grows thin.” Though it may literally be the reverse these days, with fancy gym memberships and diets for the elite and fatty processed foods offering working families the most calories for their buck, the point—the unjust gap between the haves and the have-nots—still applies. Clichés take on a renewed life when they come from Springsteen’s mouth. This is the source of much of Wrecking Ball’s power: the old values of freedom, justice, and cooperation are worth restating, and with gusto, because history is cyclical: “It’s all happened before, and it’ll happen again.” Though wrecking balls have changed design over the years, watching one knock multistoried buildings to the ground is as terrifyingly impressive a sight as ever. Wrecking Ball’s title-track was inspired by the demolition of Giants Stadium in New Jersey, but it is not a grand leap to apply his words to the besieged lower and middle classes:
Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
And your game has been decided, and you’re burning the down the clock
And all our little victories and glories, have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires, are scattered to the wind
And hard times come, hard times go
Springsteen’s efforts to integrate the twenty-first century with older notions sometimes result in awkwardness. Near the end of one song, “Rocky Ground,” is a twenty-five-second interjection by a female rapper. It is not sustained long enough to be effective and only makes the rest of the music sound dated. “Rocky Ground” is also the album’s most overtly religious song. Some critics have accused Springsteen of losing touch with his agnosticism in his old age, but the angels and flocks that he sings of are really just shapes in his utopian stencil. Religious imagery gives him the space to dream big and in color.
“Land of Hope and Dreams,” a song that evokes a promised land, best sums up his vision: “This train carries saints and sinners, this train carries losers and winners.” No one needs a ticket to get on, and “whores,” “gamblers,” and “fools” are all welcome. So are “kings,” suggesting even the 1 percent aren’t excluded, if they’re willing to cram on board with everyone else. Clarence Clemons’s saxophone comes in exultantly, reaffirming dreams of equality that hopefully didn’t die with him last summer.
Last week Michael Kazin suggested that the Left needs to imagine a more ambitious fight, beyond its defensive stances of recent decades. No doubt Kazin’s appeal for big ideas wasn’t directed at Springsteen (though he does get a mention in Kazin’s recent book, American Dreamers), and we should not be listening to Wrecking Ball for strategic or conceptual innovation. Even so, there is something to be said for the Boss’s project. He unashamedly asserts the moral worth of those political values—freedom, justice, and cooperation—that should form the basis of any fight back. He wants the land of hope and dreams, and nothing less.
Natasha Lewis is an intern at Dissent.