To Set Our Souls Free: A different view of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball

by Dave Marsh and Danny Alexander

You might wonder, for good reason, why we are writing about Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball five months after its release. Some of the reasons have been personal. But  there are better reasons why we’re speaking up now, and speaking in the way that we are. Part of it is that we both like to listen slow, and listen frequently. Too much music writing now seems hasty and undigested, and that takes a toll. (Deadline perceptions are fine if there’s nothing important in the details, vastly inadequate if there is.)  More important was our  desire to hold off until we’d heard a larger dialogue: Just what would the world make of this record and what would we have to add to that conversation? But that dialogue has been slow in coming. Most of what was written and said  about the album missed the overriding sense we have that this record speaks directly to the Arundathi Roy/Grace Lee Boggs maxim: “A new world is possible. A new world is coming. A new world is already here.”

          Because we listen both as long-term Springsteen fans and as activists,  that’s what we heard here from early on. It’s a big part of what makes Wrecking Ball something different, especially in the way these songs interact with the dialogue about the movements for social change currently taking shape in our society.  This album doesn’t sound like anything else he has done, and its call stands apart, both musically and lyrically. It calls for us not only to react, emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually, but also to act, to not just stand but fight “shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart,” the last words sung on the record.

           Such a call requires—demands—a response in kind: detailed, direct and the result of lots of interplay between our own ideas and those of others. So we’ve taken our time and as much space as we needed to use. We hope this is part of a beginning. 

TO SET OUR SOULS FREE….Dave Marsh and Danny Alexander write: Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball opens with an alarm, with air raid sirens blaring and tribal drums kicking. The singer, recognizing the enormity of what he’s dealing with, begins in quiet caution. He knocks on the palace door; he desperately seeks a map to bring him home; he stumbles over once-kind neighbors turned callous to his suffering and their own. Like the man in “Rank Stranger,” the Stanley Brothers song that influences so many rock dystopias, the singer can’t believe the devastation he’s seeing, not in the streets but in the faces, the gestures, the way people are standing and moving: “Where’s the eyes, the eyes with the will to see…Where’s the work that will set my hands, my soul free…Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” There’s one thing he needs to make sure of: He chants it obsessively, as if himself amazed that he still fully believes it, even against all this evidence that it can’t be true: “We take care of our own, we take care of our own / Wherever this flag’s flown, we take care of our own.”

Trying to figure out how to realize that promise occupies the bulk of this album, the most complete narrative work Bruce Springsteen has created since the trilogy that runs from Born to Run to Darkness on the Edge of  Town  to The River (1975-1980). At the end of the first two albums in that series, we found his central character left wounded and stranded, on a hilltop above those who’d given up, with no choice but to come back down into the valley of mundane reality where he has remained ever since. But now that mundane world itself has become tinged with fantasy, swept up in a phantasmagoria of all-against-all: Marauders, carrion eaters and blank-faced rank strangers who, though some have intentions every bit as noble as those of “Promised Land” and “Born to Run,” find the game impossibly rigged. Those “different people” who came down here to “see things in different ways” have indeed swept all away before them. It’s a haunted place now, beset by vultures and wrecking balls. Even with their bones picked over, it seems the dead may have better advice to offer than the living.

Determined to pull out of this world without options, Springsteen begins by deploying some of his old tools: Layer upon layer of guitar against swelling keyboard, driving percussion, exuberant backing vocals and lush strings. We’ve known this guy for decades, and part of what we know is that, at his core, he’s just as desperate as Wrecking Ball’s first track makes him appear. But he’s not nearly so bereft of new ideas as our first reaction to desperation implies. He has, as he so often does, the other possible reaction to desperation, the one that generates alternatives rather than merely succumbing to realities–the ace in the hole called hope. He also has new collaborators, who helped him find loops, samples, an array of new instruments—many of them antique—and most startling, new beats as well. The surprise is the dawning realization, as he moves remorselessly through a dozen songs describing this grotesque landscape and its denizens, that Bruce still believes that  if we look hard enough we’ll discover that we too have just as much reason for hope as for despair—and at least as many devices for realizing that hope, too. Particularly the hope that, if not America, at least Americans can remember what life is supposed to be all about, and then … well, then, act like they believe it, mainly.  And beyond that, can get to the hard work of change, not as rank strangers but “shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”

In the world Springsteen invented for himself (and us) forty years ago, hope was an abundant commodity—hope came cheap. Today, hope’s so much harder to discover that most of the time it seems practically beyond price. Nevertheless it’s the indispensable key to solving the fundamental question posed by Wrecking Ball: Can a society that’s torn apart “from the shotgun shack to the Superdome” function on its most basic levels? Should it? Will it? It’s all too obvious (to everyone but the willfully blind) that we no longer take care of more than a few. But how do we admit it to ourselves and begin again?

Springsteen literally prayed for some force—human or supernatural, maybe both—to provide him with this answer a decade ago, in “My City of Ruins.” Now, he’s telling us what he thinks. He’s singing not just about changing the dialogue but altering the way we behave. That is, he wants to begin—he wants all of us to begin–confronting our own weaknesses and illusions. Springsteen presses a point he’s made since he first called out and it’s fundamental to dismantling those lies we tell ourselves: “Nobody wins unless everybody wins”—taking care of me and taking care of you can’t be separate options. They have to become part of one process.

Like any great musician—and this album marks him as one, not just a great songwriter or supposed poet—Springsteen’s process begins with listening, hearing what’s around him and what’s within him. James Baldwin said it: “[T]he man who creates music…is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.” On Wrecking Ball, Bruce creates from what he hears a catalogue of what he calls his own: a cross section of American voices and sounds that connect to various pieces of himself. And that first song’s emergent voice, proclaiming the necessity of our commonality in order to retain our ability to rave on as individuals, is an almost predictable piece of what makes Bruce Springsteen who he is.

But with his very next step, the tone turns darker. “Easy Money” bursts forth with bombastic percussion accompanied by handclaps. Springsteen sings with an all-but-indecent braggadocio and a twinkle in his eye—veteran fans may recognize the kid who tossed the bus driver a quarter and told him to keep the change. Seemingly mundane preliminaries (getting dressed, taking care of the pets) give way to busting the town wide open. It sounds like this guy’s out for nothing more or better than kicks. And then he states the grim facts as he knows them, and he knows them well: “There’s nothing to it, mister, it won’t make a sound /when your whole world comes tumbling down.” He notices that “all the fat cats… just think it’s funny,” and he’s made a choice. If he has to be a fool, he’s not going to be their fool. The music evokes gangster charisma, a recklessness as infectious as it is cynical. The soaring shout and hoot and holler of his vocal, the steel guitar, fiddle and exuberant backing voices travel alongside it, taking hold before the point emerges clearly: “Easy Money” tramples the line between an ordinary fool headed for destruction and a rock and roller bound for glory.  It’s anything but a plan to confront Springsteen’s own illusions, much less the illusions of the larger audience.  Such a way out isn’t even on offer. Yet the song does possess a seemingly unsinkable spirit. Such swagger can make holding tight to one’s illusions seem like enough, but the way it works out, generally only the fat cats are still smiling at the end. This might well be the character in “Ramrod,” except the guy in “Ramrod” wasn’t looking to kill anybody. That’s how much or how little the world has changed.

“Shackled and Drawn,” a work song through and through (like “Night,” “Factory,” and “Youngstown,” among numerous others before it), begins with a spry guitar figure over pounding percussion. This one’s about awakening to a realization that if wages aren’t quite exactly slavery, they certainly leave the worker “trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong.”  It rejects the 9mm nihilism of “Easy Money” but the only replacement offered is a primitive “Badlands” slugged out on an anvil. When the lyric asks, “What’s a poor boy to do but keep singing his song?” he’s obviously asking a personal question—but also an ethical question and, in a collapsing economy, a practical one.  It’s certainly the only way this artist knows to move closer to taking care of his (and ostensibly our) artistic concerns while “up on Banker’s Hill, the party’s going strong.”  He hangs onto that last word so that it all but evokes the rhyme “wrong” before returning to the chain gang: “down here below, we’re shackled and drawn.” But the moment of ignition comes when a female preacher’s voice calls out, “I want everyone to stand up and be counted tonight,” and Springsteen shouts back, relieved to find that somebody is alive out there.

The narrator of “Jack of All Trades” could be any of the guys we’ve met so far. But he could also be any of a hundred other characters Springsteen has created, from the little kid with his feet rooted in the earth and his head in the stars in “Growin” Up” to the father who drives with his son on his lap in “My Hometown” and returns to walk through the town square, wondering when it all really went to hell in “Long Walk Home,” or the man in “Counting on A Miracle,” hearing a new heartbeat as he lays against his wife in their sleeping bag and tries to figure out how he’s going to take care of yet another life. “Jack” is sung in the voice of a man whose best moments have been left behind, down by the river or in the aisles of a supermarket or in the dust of Iraq….or maybe there are pieces of him scattered in all those places, and many more. (Any Springsteen fan could give you a list three times this long and twice as specific.)  But there’s a reason he can speak so frankly, as he sits with his hands around a cold coffee cup, leaning across the kitchen table, looking straight into the eyes of the person he loves most and telling the biggest lie of them all: “Honey we’ll be all right.” 

The music uses the chords of “When the Saints Go Marching In” (in Curt Hamm’s trumpet solo, it simply is ‘Saints”), and they bear what that song always carries, a vision of the certain finality of death so unquestionable that all arguing must cease. Which doesn’t mean the details don’t matter—the way he sings “the banker man goes fat,” so that it threatens to resonate as “fair” is the best example. He sounds weary on that line, like he’s almost sighing, and the fairness is understood to be that of yet another rigged game. It just means the truth is what it is, a pitiless pathway to the grave. If you take it seriously enough, you’re likely to want to take someone else with you—and if you go one step beyond that, you wind up in the coda, a Tom Morello guitar solo so remorseful it beggars any language but its own sounds. And the violin that follows that hums the same tune, albeit maybe another verse. Maybe the one that talks about “when the moon grows red with blood.”

The tragedy of Springsteen’s career may be summarized in the reaction of many of his veteran American fans to the appearance of this epic song in concert: They get up and head for the toilets and the concession stalls. It’s not that they don’t get it. They won’t get it. (In the European shows, the song is accompanied by a stillness and silence so deep it carries a jolt.) And so, as Springsteen says for the first but not the last time on this album, “it’s happened before and it’ll happen again.” Now’s the time for your tears.

The shimmering starlight emanating from the final note of “Jack of All Trades” opens the door to the full blown fight song that follows. “Death to My Hometown” begins in Celtic delirium, pounding drums offset by handclaps, penny whistle, a touch of banjo. Vocals enter, but they’re chanting transcendental Pentecostal incoherencies. There’s a hint of cannon fire. But the clearest noise of all, perhaps unintentionally not buried in the mix (or maybe situated there with perfect calculation, like a Motown tambourine), comes almost three minutes into the song. It’s a gun being cocked—and like the good student of Chekovian drama he is, having now mentioned the option of the gun in three out of five songs, Springsteen makes sure this one goes off, though you’ll have to listen up to hear it (That this is buried in the mix cannot be accidental.) 

Do we know the character Springsteen portrays here? He’s not the guy standing by the roadside, kicking a dead dog—although they might be related. He’s not the maniacal nihilist who calls himself Johnny 99. He’s maybe more like the guy in “The Big Muddy” who believes “You start on higher ground but end up somehow crawlin’.” Except this guy refuses to crawl—that’s what that shotgun’s for, a way of keeping him on his own two feet. It’s how he takes care of his own.

This infuriated Irish-American damns his enemies, gives them names (“marauders,” “vultures,” “greedy thieves”), declares in sputtering rage that the greatest of the injustices is that they “walk the streets as free men now.” But what sort of justice would he have them face ? The gun goes off but without repercussion…and when he has the bastards most clearly in his sights (and this guy’s vision is a lot clearer than Jack’s), he suggests that something else is what might work: “Now get yourself a song to sing / And sing it ‘till you’re done / Sing it hard and sing it well / Send the robber barons straight to hell.”

It’s a rock’n’roll answer. But it’s also something else: It’s straight out of the beloved community that produced the most effective American social change of Springsteen’s lifetime: the Civil Rights Movement. For this ever-moral (and moralizing) artist, the song is always mightier than the shotgun. Hold that thought. 

Hold it tight against what comes next. 

“This Depression” sounds not nearly so much depressed as desperate, and not the desperation of the outlaw who’s crossed some invisible line, more that of a man who’s being slowly tangled by the lines of hip hop beats, ethereal keyboard washes, floating wordless backing vocals and more Tom Morello guitar, which tools through this soundscape of isolated misery as if it’s on a lonely Jersey Girl’s journey between stars…although this certainly isn’t the lights of the sun, let alone where the fun is. More likely, it’s a roughly spackled ceiling dropping paint chips onto her Sistine Chapel dreams.

The nakedness of the song’s self disclosure marks it as utterly contemporary. The voice stripped of bravado, or even energy to face the struggles ahead, suggests the dead ends and bad dreams of “The Promise” and (more so) “State Trooper,” where the singer declares “the only thing that I got’s been botherin’ me my whole life.” But whether “This Depression” refers to the character’s personal clinical depression or an international economic depression, or more likely both, it’s absolutely not a way out. In fact, it’s not even a coherent response to the threat we’ve just been hearing about. He keeps declaring, to some unspecified “baby,” “I need your heart,” although the musical heart of the song, its pulsation, stumbles around like it might give out (or give up). And you have to wonder if he might be staring into a mirror. Until you see that if that’s so, it’s because we all are.

***

In the midst of a vinyl revival, one thing you’d imagine would be mentioned more often is that Bruce Springsteen is approximately the last artist whose records almost always divide as if Side One and Side Two were pertinent digital terms. On Wrecking Ball the turn from “This Depression” to the title track clearly marks the story’s emergence as a struggle toward light, after six songs cursing the darkness.

That light doesn’t exactly pour in. These lyrics are the ultimate mixture of the personal and the political on an album where that particular combo is the daily special. Although the song’s metaphor depends on the planned demolition of Giants Stadium in the Jersey Meadowlands after the Springsteen run of shows there in 2009, even back then it wasn’t “about” the disappearance of a major concert venue or even a quasi-historical site. Bruce first sang it on September 30, 2009—one week to the day after his sixtieth birthday, annus horribilis for any rock star. It was also a year since Springsteen traveled the campaign trail with Barack Obama, and ten months since Obama’s Administration had begun squandering whatever chance there may have been that the vultures of Wall Street would no longer walk the streets as free men.

It’s a funny song, but the humor’s anything but light. For every “mosquitoes grow big as aero-planes” and jangly guitar lick there’s  “when all our victories and glories have turned into parking lots,” a mordant summation of both the man and the building’s career highlights. We are urged to raise up our glasses to those who have fallen (“because tonight all the dead are here”), but we are much more surprisingly and unsentimentally instructed that the way out of the mess is to “hold tight to your anger and don’t fall to your fears.”  That’s not the advice of a nice guy from the backstreets. It sounds more like the admonition of a seasoned barroom brawler.

More than that, we’re told that even after the game is decided and the wrecking ball is heading straight for a sock in our eye, we have to hold tight and not fall because “hard times come and hard times go / and hard times come and hard times go / and hard times come and hard times go /  and hard times come and hard times go / and hard times go” and then, his voice coming down on the words like his strings on a power chord, “Yeah, just to come again.” This is a man who’s sick of laughing in the face of defeat after defeat. This is a guy who won and then watched the victory turn particularly sour. This is a guy who’s not sure anybody within earshot (give or take the band) is on his side and isn’t letting that stop him.

This is the tragic hero, finally learning the fundamental lesson that repeating the same mistakes over and over again is worse than insanity. Springsteen here is like Bo Diddley, condemned to endless repetition and delighting in it, too. Condemned to learn the lesson and to spit in the lesson’s eye. Condemned to act crazy and finding in that the greatest delight of all.

It’s not that the endless cycle of hard times doesn’t matter. It’s that it matters so much—and so does what so many have learned about the unsettling ways in which what matters presents itself, opportunities as well as obstacles. At the end of the song, with the whole band in full swing and a wordless chorus pressing relentlessly forward, what you’re hearing is precisely a group admitting its own (very mortal) limits in order to risk whatever it takes for hard times to come again no more.

The record’s musical turning point hinges on not only tearing down walls but reaching through the rubble for helping hands to rebuild.  “Wrecking Ball” itself shifts the focus of the horn arrangement from Clarence Clemons’ tenor sax to Curt Ramm’s trumpet, but that’s a product of inevitability. Producer Ron Aniello is new, as are almost all the engineers and mixers. And though this is a rock album, there’s hardly a track where the E Street Band appears intact. Instead, dozens of different musicians and singers appear, from so many different genres that many songs defy classification.  The lyrics suggest that junking the whole works might be worth the risk, but he’s not just saying it—the idea is made more plausible because it emerges from greater musical risks than Bruce usually allows himself.

Suitably then, the first song after this cataclysmic anthem is a reach of the hand. “You’ve Got It” begins as a wooing, with only voice over acoustic guitar.  Electric guitar, piano and steel guitar turn the second verse into a country-flavored seduction, celebrating that thing the loved one has that makes her like no one else.  Once the singer observes, “You can’t read it in a book/You can’t even dream it,” the full weight of the album’s sound kicks in with bluesy guitar and soulful horns.  By the end, it’s apparent this song’s about the creative heart of the album—that individual human spark that makes us fall in love, yes, and that same spark that binds us together and lends us surprising strength in numbers—like the massive band second lining onward into the unknown beyond the fadeout. A thing so elusive and so fundamental that it’s hardly any wonder that the first time Bruce played it live, he explained it in terms of the Higgs boson.

Springsteen’s writing has edged toward outright gospel since the turn of the century. “Rocky Ground” is the payoff—one of his most musically dramatic and emotionally lavish productions ever. The opening samples a Pentecostal preacher proclaiming, in a voice that sounds remarkably like Bruce’s own, “I’m a soldier!” over and again. The gospel choir that follows—the Victorious Gospel choir of Asbury Park, N.J. with which Springsteen’s worked before—caresses what will become the song’s chorus: “We’ve been travelin’ over rocky ground, rocky ground.” The bed is a synth echoing “Streets of Philadelphia,” before a particularly liquid guitar riff sets the stage for Springsteen’s hoarse recitation of the verse. He begins where he left off in his other gospel choir song, “My City of Ruins” from The Rising, exhorting, albeit with quiet sadness, his flock to “rise up,” a term never more saturated in political and religious conflict. He shows which side he’s on immediately, invoking the expulsion of the money-changers from the Temple, as well as the prospect of (perhaps divine?) retribution, in death and in life. But the second time through, “Sun’s in the heavens and a new day is rising.”

When Springsteen finishes, Michelle Moore steps out of the choir and delivers a rap. It’s written for an impoverished woman, a mother, but she could be that “Wrecking Ball” character (“You pray that hard times, hard times come no more”). Her prayer is simple: “That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest.” Still, in a sleepless night, faith curdles to doubt and “only silence meets your prayers / The morning breaks, you awake, there’s no one there.”

“There’s a new day comin’” the song declares but the voice sounds like Bruce Springsteen, not God. And as Michelle Moore’s voice fades out, repeating the title phrase, what’s left is more than a moment of doubt. The song is an answer to the challenge posed in “We Take Care of Our Own”: If the cavalry stayed at home, what now? The stark answer is that all that’s left is us.

And as the choir opens the next to last song, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” recasting a staple of Springsteen’s live shows since the E Street Band reunion in 1999, that’s right where the answer stays.  This rendition is that much more intense, edgier, louder—even Little Steven’s mandolin has some added urgency—because that choir is present to connect Springsteen’s Woody Guthrie elements to those he took from Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, a secular cross between “This Train is Bound for Glory” and “People Get Ready.” What this means is that the weary traveler finds love even as the material losses multiply. But it’s not God she meets in that field where sunlight streams. It’s just that ordinary guy, the same one we’ve known since “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road,” “a good companion for this part of the ride.” Surrounded this time by (and seemingly at one with) whores, gamblers, thieves, lost souls and just plain sinners alongside the saints and winners, the journey remains just as important as its destination. 

The pledges of religions and governments are one thing. The bond between individual humans is what always seems truly sacred in Springsteen music, and it has to be carried out, step by painful step. Forgiveness is possible—hell, forgiveness abounds—but the price is as high as it’s meant to be.  Those bells that ring might be the bells from the courthouse in “Long Walk Home,” because their promise is defined exactly the same way. They are “bells of freedom ringin’.” And if, as Springsteen has long contended, the real issue in his songs is whether love is real, then the only qualification might be “in this life.” It’s heartbreakingly real here, heartbreaking because that is one long, long ride. But it can’t start unless we get on board.

However religious he may be, Bruce Springsteen for sure believes that, each and every night, all the dead should be with us. It’s one of the joys of this record that Clarence Clemons makes his final appearance on “Land of Hope and Dreams,” in the heart of one of the band’s greatest songs, in a performance that actually tops the live one.

But the Big Man, like Phantom Dan before him, is gone and he’s not coming back any more than your good manufacturing job is. The question isn’t whether that’s true—only a politician would pretend we don’t know that answer—the question is what we are going to do about it. To really set off on the trip to the Lands of Hope and Dreams, we need to find ways to accept who we really are, to fight off the vultures and the marauders, to rise up so we can hear those bells of freedom ring. 

To Springsteen, the dead still have a role to play—just as they do in “Wrecking Ball,” they reappear in the finale, “We Are Alive,” a mocking, dead-serious merger of Johnny Cash, mariachi, Morricone soundtrack music and a little of that old devil dust.

A bass note from what sounds like scratchy vinyl opens “We Are Alive,” then folky guitar and some truly outré whistling. (The whistling could also be termed “ghostly” and given that the E Street Band’s onstage whistler was Clarence, maybe that’s a better way to put it.)  But then the mariachi horns arrive, and a bass and drum figure out of “Ring of Fire.”  The singer starts looking up at Calvary hill, but he’s immediately distracted by “a graveyard kid” lurking among the dead, listening to corpses tell their stories. The singer kneels and places his ear to the headstones, so he can hear them too. The first three are a dead railroad striker, a little girl killed in a civil rights era bombing, and a border crosser who expired in the Southwestern desert as he attempted to reach the U.S. It’s not much of a reach to connect the gamblers, workers, jacks of all trades, fighters and athletes—each, like all of us, systematically isolated. 

But not only are these dead not content to be silent, they’re not even content to watch us forever screw up. They are about to issue marching orders, not in order to evoke the old days but to ensure that we have the best possible new ones. “We are alive!” they exult. “And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark / Our spirits rise / To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”

The singer dreams himself dead—carried under to confront the worms and the dark and the loneliness. Then the voices appear again to remind him: “We are alive…our souls and spirits rise / To carry the fire and light the spark / To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”

Call it a rock’n’roll version of magic realism, if you wish, but you still won’t have nailed the biggest, most significant change Bruce Springsteen has wrought in his work—and perhaps therefore himself—with Wrecking Ball. The man with the amazing ability to remain a mere moralist while traveling on Presidential campaigns has finally discovered his politics. And so he’s willing to strongly suggest what we might do if we would like to rid ourselves of the vultures and thieves who pillage our lives. Even if he does put his ideas in the mouths of the dead.

Maybe that’s as it should be, the musician listening to the voices he’s gathered and relaying what they say. Those ideas he hears are living things, never more vital than at these moments when we all feel out of options.  What matters most is not that the speakers are the dead (or even that the dead aren’t in the most important sense gone), but that we are alive—right here, right now. All of us: the Jack of All Trades, the punk in search of Easy Money, the ones who’ve got it and the victims of the death of their hometowns, the ones starving on rocky ground or discovering that the lack of a job shackles them as much as the drudgery of a job ever did. Not to mention those sure the train holds no place for them. Wrecking Ball  leaves no one untouched, unmarred or at the very least unchanged. But the people out there in the dark, listening, aren’t buried. They’re still moving and the future lies in the ways in which they move—together and apart, bonded and isolated, terrified and overjoyed, in hope and in despair–as they always have moved when hard times come and come again. Wrecking Ball dares to put all of them together on that train to the certain nowhere that is our only blessed future and then, it does the unimaginable: It tries to start a conversation.  In its own way, armed with not much more than a song to sing and a belief that if we travel over this rocky ground together there is a promised land at the other end, it aims to change the world.

Whether it succeeds in changing it, of course, isn’t up to Bruce Springsteen. It’s up to those who hear his call. It’s up to the ones who are alive out there. It’s up to us. 

 [Many thanks to Daniel Wolff, Craig Werner, and Lee Ballinger as well as the entire Stratlist.]

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

19 Responses to “To Set Our Souls Free: A different view of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball”

  1. Deborah says:

    The Trumpet Man’s name is Ramm, but he is a ham

  2. Darrell says:

    The trumpet soloist on “Jack of All Trades” is named Curt Ramm, not Hamm. Please correct.

  3. Mark Weston says:

    Thsnk you for this review. I have been a ong time fan and cannot remember an album tat has captivated me as much as this. As he grows old so do we….
    Bruce is not. Ynical but a realist who keeps reaching out for the working man. This is astonishing considering he moves away fom a normal life exponentially as each year passes.
    Bruce should be European, like me. We have more respect and care for the individual and we find the American system unfair and priviledged. Maybe that explains his success in Europe as we really understand his feelings but more from past battles. In America this battle between left and right is now raging. In Europe iris center right and center left battling.

  4. Charlie Vachris says:

    Thank you so much for a well-thought, deeply felt, and clearly articulated response to one of Bruce Springsteen’s greatest albums. I was grateful to listen to most of your dialogue yesterday, on Live From E Street Nation, as you, Dave, and Danny, expressed your response to this album and fielded calls from listeners. I am a long-time listener to Live From E Street Nation, but I have never called in. I listen on my car raido, between visits, as I drive to the homes of terminal patients, on Fridays, as part of my role as a hospice social worker. I do not always get to hear the whole show, but I really appreciate the bits and pieces I am able to hear.

    The two of you have formulated a profound response to Bruce’s latest album. You make an excellent point when you write that a common theme of Bruce’s songwriting and musical work has been: We don’t win, unless everyone wins. I feel strongly, as you do, that we are the ones that Bruce is calling forth to make sure that we live in a society where the saints and sinners, whores and gamblers, winners and losers, are all on board. We are implored to ride that train together. If we see that someone can not get on board, then we need to assist them so that they don’t miss the train. Thank you so much for your excellent article.

  5. Jane Arnone says:

    This is the most intelligent and brilliantly reasoned discussion of the Wrecking Ball material that I have read. A beacon of light in the otherwise dark world of music journalism.

  6. This is spot-on and really captures how WRECKING BALL feels. It’s one of those albums that reveals itself on so many levels. It is immediately enjoyable, but many months later, it still stands up. There are subtleties and ties to the rest of Bruce’s work that are really quite intriguing. The most obvious is the “whoah-oahs” from “Born To Run” added to the end of “Wrecking Ball”, and I loved learning about some of the others I missed.

    What’s truly remarkable is how much this album is in the present, comments on it, and puts one in the situations of the characters. Most artists Bruce’s age have long before left trying anything ambitious. And I hate mentioning his age, because a true artist does not simply stop. Bruce is the furthest thing from a nostalgia show.

    I am curious, though, as to what the authors think of the bonus tracks. I love “Swallowed Up” and think it’s an interesting folk telling…very haunting. Of course, the new “American Land” is great…especially that guitar feedback at the end.

  7. D Harrison says:

    This is a wonderful piece: the only thing I’d dispute is the suggestion that the gun Springsteen refers to doesn’t go off until Death to My Hometown. I’d say it’s fired in Jack of All Trades, the album’s real masterpiece. Those three snare shots just before Morello’s incredible solo, with just a fraction of a second too long between them to be a normal beat: that’s the bang-bang-bang of a gun, surely?

  8. Jeannie Fino says:

    I would need Bruce’s writing abilties to describe to you how much I enjoyed reading this. As a dedicated fan whose life has been immensely impacted by Bruce’s music, I am extremely grateful for opportunities to ingest the thoughts of others, especially those, like you, who have such an insightful take on his music. Thank you!

  9. Sue says:

    Thank you for a simply wonderful essay on the thrilling adventure that is Wrecking Ball. I have always maintained that my favorite Bruce albums were Born To Run and The Rising. WB is so much it’s own self that I don’t even know where to place it. It is (at least in my mind) his most different album, in the sense that while the songs come from a place of fear and frustration and anger, (I have heard many say this is his most “angry” album), the different styles of music are, to me, just breathtaking. I so appreciate your words. I have to ask you one question… I have always been curious about a lyric in an old song, if you can call a 10 year old album old… from Nothing Man… “The pearl and silver Restin’ on my night table… It’s just me Lord, pray I’m able.” What is on that table… a gun, or a rosary… and if it’s a gun, does he want to pray that he is able to take his own life, or that of another? If it is a rosary, is he praying for the strength to simply go on each and every day? Thank you again for sharing with us your own interpretation of this incredible album.

  10. Patrick Ganz says:

    You wrote “Countin’ on a Miracle” when I think you meant to write “Long Time Comin’.”

  11. billy yerman says:

    Very thought provoking. Extremely well written. Music and lyrics combine together to present a frightening view of the world we find ourselves in. Are we a country of individualists or a community? Hope for latter.

  12. Rob says:

    Guys, a great read. The one comment I have is regarding “You’ve Got It”. When I hear this song, especially when the bluesy/country guitar comes in, I could hear the Stones of yesteryear giving a great treatment of this song. Enjoy your work, enjoy hearing Dave on Sirius Fridays, keep up the good work!

  13. Spanish Johnny says:

    Love the album.
    Hate this pompous, bs-filled, review.
    Give me a break.

  14. KAREN HAGEN-BODA says:

    DEAR DAVE:

    This article is in fact an awesome read. All fans veterans or new should read this. I was swept away into my world of springsteen.

    I am catholic and have been to the Sistine Chapel and do star gaze. lol ( in fact i m married young moved to Tampa and left my x husband on a sunny florida road (not dead tho). I at times feel as if i am a walking talking poster child found not lost in a springsteen song.

    If anyone would have said to me at 17 i would be still chasing the band anticpating the next album and running not walking to get 4 copies of the New Yorker (the article by the other guy:)) and ofcourse anticipatging the next tour with my arm hairs standing up, all at the turn of 50 this year. I would have said “get the f out of here, “your crazy”

    So here I am turning 50 this year and it is a critic like you that always seems to enlighted the fan to the facts of all things springsteen.

    I agree the us veteran fan can be in fact obnoxious and rude at a concert. I was in philly at the night he played the old one ” Kitty’s Back” and Bruce saw the sign, adorn by double high fives from fans surrounding me holding a sign that I worked on for days, surrounded by white christmas lights, which read Kitty’s Back to Wiggle Wiggle (BReast cancer I’m back! and a fun take from Jimmy fallon) I was screamed at by fans behind me through the show…. “Hey lady enough with the sign.” As i sit and watched him overseas collect signs at the end of the europeon tour I wonder to myself if the fans in back of me see the same springsteen i do. Veterans need to wake up and realize let the Boss run the show not us. Although my sign may have changed that set list and commanded 14 minutes of the show, ony Bruce knows. (I was happy)

    I could go on but i think you know by know the i am taken back with the characters of wrecking ball now that you have written about in this article and I did not have to run out to buy 4 copies for me and my bruce buddies. Just a cick away..

    Thanks! You are the best and for the other guy, he’s ok but not you…keep on writing.

    Thanks again
    Karen, Burlington NJ

  15. christine hajney says:

    I heard you discussing your Wrecking Ball article on E Street Radio Friday morning. I was anxious to read it for myself. I just finished reading it. It’s a great article, well worth the five month wait. I’ve listened to the CD many times now, but your article really broadened my understanding of it and gave me a few new things to listen for. Thank you.
    I am embarassed to admit that I am just now coming to the realization that if we want things to change, it really is up to us. I get it- Wrecking Ball is a call to action and God bless Bruce Springsteen for trying. I do believe we can and should take care of our own and that we can change things for the better for everyone if we have the desire and the will to figure out how to work together. As an individual I don’t know where to start.
    Thanks for a thought provoking article!

  16. Dona Velluti says:

    A tiny addition to a comment in the article about the European reception of Jack-of-All-Trades: I was at the concert in Manchester (UK) on June 22, 2012 and I was standing near a woman in her sixties with a clear working class accent who had taken her niece (early twenties) to what was clearly her first Springsteen concert, so she was giving her some info now and again. Everybody (except the young novice :-)) knew all the lyrics of Wrecking Ball, and when Bruce started Jack-of-All-Trades the woman told her niece “Listen to this one – he talks about shooting the bosses!” like she was PROUD of Bruce. When Bruce sang “If I had me a gun I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight” the cheer from the whole stadium (60,000 people, I believe) was VERY loud. I don’t know about anywhere else, but in Manchester people did hear him alright…

  17. Gary Benz says:

    Dave, Danny:

    Brilliant take and incredibly thought provoking. I’m glad, too, that you waited to publish this as this is a work that takes time to process. I’ve listened to it dozens of times and find it a brilliant work for many of the same reasons. After hearing the title track countless times, it wasn’t until very recent listenings that I started to hear portions of “Born to Run” at the end of that track. As the chorus begins to fade, first Suzi’s violin and then the background singers break into a “whoa whoa whoa” refrain that is directly from the ending of Born to Run. I tend to think there are no accidents and that this direct link from the title track of Springsteen’s breakthrough album to the title track of his most recent album is meant to let the listener know what really does happen to the characters who were young, reckless, full of promise and in the early or mid 20s by the time they reach their 60s, like Bruce. Fascinating way of conveying a much broader message.

  18. Jack Klunder says:

    Dave:

    Thank you for sharing this brilliant piece that you and Danny provided all of us fans. I was only able to listen last Friday for about 10 minutes and was really looking forward to this piece.

    I did something really interesting – I went back and read many of the reviews of Wrecking Ball when the record first appeared on the market. Deadlines combined with space limitations and a sprinkle of “I just don’t get it” made for some pretty shallow and off the mark reviews from many of your inferior writing colleagues.

    Your piece is deep, thoughtful, informative and inspiring!

    You are on to a new form of music criticism – don’t write a word until the music seeps into your soul.

    Well done my friend!

    Jack Klunder

  19. Joe Gatti says:

    Thanks Dave and Danny, tremendous essay.

    Where 1975′s Born to Run opens with the break of dawn and moves determinedly through the days’ hours to ultimately land way past midnight in Manhattan—Wrecking Ball, I see now, is a mirror image. Arising deep inside a black night, the darkness gives way to growing light and the full promise of a new day becomes more apparent as the record drives its way home. For too many of us today, dawn’s promise is extremely difficult to have faith in, but if we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hands to hold it’s worth fighting to keep ourselves, and that promise, alive.

    Hells yes we have a song to sing. Right now we may not all be singing the same words or be quite in tune, but hope lies in believing we will be one day soon—perhaps just a little bit further on up the road.

Leave a Reply

*