BY COLONEL TOM SHEEHY In October of 2009, during the Working On A Dream tour, Springsteen took to the stage at Giants Stadium up in the Meadowlands of New Jersey, right before the venue was to be torn down. For that august occasion, he opened the show with a newly-penned song called “Wrecking Ball.” Symbolically, the stadium represented the old — a place built with the sweat equity of the working man — while the wrecking ball symbolized the power of change to make way for something new.
The metaphor of the wrecking ball evolved over the next two years as did the facts on the ground. It became the symbol of the fat cat bankers, and the stadium became the American Dream reduced to rubble and sold off to the highest bidder in the form of collateral debt obligations. On the title track, Springsteen tells his listeners “Hold tight to your anger and don’t fall to your fears … bring on your wrecking ball.” That lyric took on a transformative significance over time as the financial crisis worsened and it became clear that the banksters that caused it would walk away without a scratch leaving the working class to bear the brunt of it. Hence, that ire manifested itself in an album that is filled with hope and anger all at once — an equipoise which Springsteen describes as, “angry patriotism.” Springsteen told Rolling Stone, “the record basically started out as folk music.” But in the studio, the songs mutated into other forms as they transfigured simple anger. Inspiration was derived from ancient country-blues, Irish rebel songs, Southern Gospel, Civil War anthems, and the loops and sampling of hip hop.
Springsteen has not assembled such an intriguing cast of characters to advance his narratives since Nebraska. None of the characters on this album have names because these folks represent everyone. There’s the Bonnie & Clyde-like couple in Celtic-inflected “Easy Money.” In “Shackled And Drawn, it does not escape the narrator’s notice that there’s a party going on “up on banker’s hill” where “it’s still fat and easy.” The handy man in “Jack Of All Trades” points out that hard times are cyclical and inevitable but still he’d like some payback: “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight.” Musically, this song sounds as dower as its character’s mood, but it ends with a gorgeous uplifting guitar solo from Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine.
And then there is the dirge-like “This Depression,” as morose a piece of music as Springsteen has ever written, wherein the protagonist who confesses to his lover that, “Baby, I’ve been low, but never this low.”The album does not get any more saturnine than this. Where side one is all despair, side two offers some rays of hope. “You’ve Got It” is a simple song of tenderness, with some exquisite acoustic and electric guitar interplay which provides some much needed relief from the mordant messages of hard labor with missives of tender love. “Rocky Ground” may just be the most adventurous song of Springsteen’s career, combining the sounds of gospel, old-timey samples (from Alan Lomax’s recording of “I’m A Soldier In The Army Of The Lord”), and even some hip hop. The benediction-like “Land of Hope And Dreams” was written back in the 1990s and closed many shows with thereafter but was never released until now.
Maybe on some level he knew that one day he’d need an uplifting song to close out a bummer album with a sense of redemption and release. And fittingly enough, it is the song where Clarence Clemons takes his final saxophone solo. Add in the bounteous vocals of the Victorious Gospel Choir, and it feels as if the dark clouds that hang over this album begin to part when he shouts out that “tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past.” A very dramatic way to put the finishing touch on a truly soul-awakening and heartrending album. Amen!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tom Sheehy is a scholar at University of Pennsylvania working toward his doctorate in 20th Century American History. Previously, Mr. Sheehy worked in the music business for 30 years doing publicity and marketing for record companies, radio stations, and concert promoters.