Call it patronage, insider politics, Wall Street privilege. In Chicago, they call it the “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent” rule. It’s given rise to the Occupy movement around the world, a year-long citizens protest against the entitled that up till now really doesn’t have a soundtrack.
Bruce Springsteen tries earnestly to provide one on his 17th studio album, “Wrecking Ball” (Columbia). The chorus of the opening song should ring true to anyone who expected fairness from a civic or business leader and wound up with something less. “We Take Care of Our Own” is an anthem for the 99 percenters, those not connected enough to matter when power is cemented and the money distributed.
“From the shotgun shack to the Super Dome/There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home,” Springsteen sings over a kick-drum thump, evoking the botched rescue of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The song’s scope widens into a series of questions: “Where’s the love that has not/Forsaken me? … Where’s the promise from/Sea to shining sea?”
It’s one of Springsteen’s most pointed political statements, one that outlines a vision of what he believes America should be and how it has fallen short. It is an all-encompassing view of democracy drawn from Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and the populist anthems of Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash. Everyone is welcome, no one should be left behind, it declares. Those are fighting words in an election year in which the fate of the have’s and have-not’s is at the center of a national debate in the halls of power and in the streets, and Springsteen leaves no doubt about where he stands.
The album is primarily the work of a two-man band: Springsteen and producer Ron Aniello, with dozens of guests, including late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who appears on two tracks. The sound is less E Street Band rock than a mix of traditional music (folk-based country, blues, gospel) and electronic filigree (samples of vintage recordings and rhythm loops). It’s also swamped in harmony vocals (no less than 12 backing singers are employed, as well as a choir).
As is the case with a number of Springsteen albums lately, the production feels stiff and forced, straining for grandeur. These are songs about the death of something – not just jobs, but belief, spirit – and the fight to restore them. Yet that desperation rarely comes across in the music. The harmonies might be an attempt to evoke the feel of a union rally in full cry or a pub in a drunken sing-along. Instead, they sound sterile, as if they were punched out on a computer set to “football-stadium” volume.
“Death to my Hometown” rages about a community toppled without a shot being fired by “the robber barons.” It’s sung from the perspective of one of the disenfranchised residents, and it brims with an escalating sense of outrage (“The greedy thieves … ate the flesh of everything they found”). But it sounds almost cheery with penny whistle and accordion leading a jaunty march down Main Street, with Springsteen even adopting an Irish accent.
On “Easy Money,” the singer morphs into a hillbilly and decries “all them fat cats” who laugh at his misfortune. Desperation drives the narrator to strap on a handgun, grab his girl and head into town looking for trouble. But the wordless “na-na” harmonies make it sound like a fun-loving romp instead of a reckoning.
“Shackled and Drawn” conjures a prison work song, the type of melody that enables men consigned to hard labor to negotiate another day in the unforgiving sun. Yet the arrangement employs a cast of thousands in a rousing chorus, as if to undercut the dire reality of the lyrics. It’s one thing to overcome despair through the power of song, quite another to bury it beneath the sound of a 4th of July marching band.
This is an album that could’ve been the sequel to “Nebraska,” Springsteen’s riveting 1982 album about ordinary people struggling to retain their jobs, their dignity, their moral compass. That album is stripped to its essence, until the listener is alone with Springsteen’s troubled narrators. But with a stadium tour looming later this year with the E Street Band, Springsteen opted for “Born in the U.S.A.”-style fist-pumpers on “Wrecking Ball.”
“Land of Hope and Dreams” has been a concert closer for years, and has added nostalgia value because it makes room for one of Clemons’ final sax solos. Similarly, the title track was written a few years ago as the swan song for a pro football stadium in New Jersey, and has shown up on set lists ever since as a reliably defiant ode to the passage of time and the inevitable decline of cherished rituals and institutions – classic Boss themes.
The album is bookended by its best songs, the opening “We Take Care of Our Own” and the twangy “We are Alive,” with its echoes of Johnny Cash’s hit “Ring of Fire.” The latter ties the album’s themes together, linking the civil rights, labor and immigrant movements across the centuries in a narrative that suggests that informed dissent is what has made America what it was and what it still can be. Springsteen’s heart, as usual, is in the right place. He’s written some resonant songs. But he lost his nerve as a coproducer, going for stadium bombast instead of the unadorned grit these stories of hard times demand.