When listening to Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball, it's impossible not compare it to the other late-period Springsteen albums (post-2002). And interestingly enough, I think that the two more pessimistic ones -- Magic and Wrecking Ball -- end up having far more to say than the oft-praised The Rising and the oft-lamented Working on a Dream.
This thought, particularly in regards to The Rising, may be blasphemous to some. After all, Rolling Stone gave the album five stars and named it the 15th best of the 2000s.
But The Rising is a child of September 11th, and listening to it now, over 10 years later, the album really only works in that context. Songs like "Lonesome Day" and "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" have become concert anthems at best, lazy lamentations of lapsed sadness at worst. A few terrific songs -- "My City of Ruins," "You're Missing" and "Into the Fire," in particular -- come jampacked with emotion, no matter how or when you're consuming them, but there's plenty of fluff -- "Mary's Place" -- and embarrassment -- "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)" -- to bring the album as a whole down. To put it simply, the misses outweigh the hits.
And Working on a Dream...well, my thoughts on that are well-documented. (Also, the first sentence of that post is maybe the most embarrassing one I've ever written.)
But Magic, on the other hand, never wavers. "Radio Nowhere" may be a factory-constructed single, but it's catchier and a lot more provocative than the Rising staples. "Last to Die" is a little on the nose but performed with the passion of a man who believes every word he's saying, which is one of the reasons Bruce's simpler lyrics often escape critical bombardment. And "Livin' in the Future" is the token "downtrodden lyrics over upbeat music" song that Bruce often turns to these days, but his meaning through is never muddled; there was no need to offer a "We Take Care of Our Own"-type clarification.
There's not really a standout on the album, something you'd remember as indicative of the work as a whole, but from start to finish it sounds like Springsteen has a message that he's spelling out clearly: Through manipulation, deceit and general human indecency, a lot of people are in rough shape.
That sort of idea carries over to Wrecking Ball, which has already been referred to as his "angriest album yet." I don't know if "angry" is the word I'd use, but again, Bruce certainly does stick to his message. Which, in my opinion, is that "the forces of life and time are beating far too many people down."
Whether those forces are the government, the economy, the internal struggle to press forward that's inside every human being, or a growing inability to connect with each other, Bruce sounds like a man who sees these troubles and more like them lurking now and over the horizon.
The album wraps up with the near-requisite "you gotta believe" two-pack in "Land of Hope and Dreams" and "We Are Alive," but they're almost afterthoughts once you finish plowing through "Easy Money," "Shackled and Drawn" and "Death To My Hometown." Neither one features the sad solo guitar of Nebraska, but you can imagine what they'd sound like if Bruce busted out his acoustic one night. Instead, he provides a folksy, Seeger Sessions sort of feel, and a sense of foreboding that begins with the album's opening and comes to a head on "Death," one of his most powerful (and catchiest) songs in recent memory.
My biggest surprise was that "Wrecking Ball," a lame Meadowlands tribute that I despised when Bruce debuted it during the end of last year's tour, turned out to be a six-minute musical masterpiece, complete with a wondrous trumpet that makes up for the shoddy lyrics. As Blogness on the Edge of Town so perfectly put it, the song's a "blast of rock energy right where the album needs it."
While it's certainly a little odd to have a hundred-millionaire lamenting the struggles of us little guys, Springsteen has always kept a watchful eye on the world, even from his ivory tower. He may not be able to connect like he used to, but he can still grasp the general tone of society and how it is changing around him.
But where does this musical concern for society, one that's been brewing since Devils & Dust, come from? Bruce's best work has always been internal, whether it's the characters with a personal flair from Born to Run or the deep self-examination of Tunnel of Love. Maybe he has nothing left to say from a personal standpoint; despite all that energy displayed onstage, his life is wrapping up. What's a powerfully influential rock legend with a boatload of money and a few kids supposed to sing about? In Bruce's case, he's decided to pay more attention to the people and places around him. And whether he means them to or not, his more dour observations about the world he's trying to process via music are the ones that ring truer.
At age 62, is Bruce Springsteen better at writing about sadness than happiness? When comparing Wrecking Ball and Working on a Dream, it's hard to argue otherwise. Not that Working is a joyful romp, but it was decidedly optimistic and sure as hell had nothing to say. For all the faults with this album -- "Rocky Ground," especially the rap part, is a big misfire, and "This Depression" sounds like sad sack filler -- it feels like it sprang from something real.
Wrecking Ball is nowhere near perfect, it's not even quite at the level of Magic, but it is indeed, as Steven Hyden put it, a culmination of sorts. Actual proof, maybe, that Springsteen can do what everyone claimed he could post-The Rising, which is provide commentary of sorts on a battered nation. How he's able to in this case is something only Bruce knows for sure.