Back in 1984 Bruce Springsteen released what was to become his most iconic tune. Born in the U.S.A. was hailed as an American classic and the new anthem for all true patriots. A statement that doesn’t say much for their state of mind or attention to detail. Far from being the love letter to the United States Middle America seems to think it is, actually it was a brutally honest and bitterly cynical swipe at a government that forced an entire generation of young men to fight for their country in Vietnam and abandoned them when the war was over. This left thousands of veterans without jobs, employment prospects and many with only half finished educations. Born in the U.S.A. refers to these men and woman as people brought up to love a country that would eventually betray them.
So it is his most iconic song and, unfortunately, his most misunderstood. Today he has Wrecking Ball, an album that tackles many of the same issues, of men and women who have worked their lives trying to make this country great only to be exploited, used and consumed by corporate America. It is just as scathing, sour and scalding as the 1984 hit, but will it suffer the same fate?
The evidence is strong. Clearly people have shown that they like to hear Springsteen, not think about him. It was the big, rabble rousing chorus that people wanted to sing along to, not the troubled verses of hard times and desperations. Hopefully in this day and age people are more enlightened and are wiling to listen to the music not just hear it. But Wrecking Ball has many of the same characteristics that caused so much confusion for the 1984 hit.
It started life as Springsteen’s attempt at a gospel album, which he eventually threw out after realizing that the time was right for an album that was a call to arms for working class America. The album still retains some of its Gospel roots but instead of the focus it becomes part of a bigger picture . Gospel is a music known for being sung in large groups at community gatherings, and it is that aspect of the music that is retained throughout.
The album sounds more like the Seeger Sessions as it goes on a cross country tour of old fashioned American protest music stopping off at traditional Irish, turn of the century blues and even urban hip hop. It’s music that aims to create gatherings , to join people together in song and unite them against a common enemy. They are songs to be sung in times of depression, celebration and remembrance.
Jack of all Trades is Springsteen’s Masters of War. It airs his grievances at the devastation caused by the upper class elitists on small town rural America whist condemning them to death for their arrogance and greed. On the surface Springsteen sounds mournful but patient, while underneath there as a trembling rage ever threatening to boil over. Death to My Home Town is a merry little Irish jig that chronicles the destruction of a way of life that many of the local families were dependant on to make money. To the casual listener it sounds like the sort of tune you would dance away to in an Irish pub while the lyrics are scornful, mocking and booby trapped with barbed wire.
But the problem it’s all under the surface. Maybe I’ve been desensitised to quieter protest music throughout my youth by bands such as Rise Against, The King Blues and Rage Against the Machine, expecting that if you have something to say then you say in the most confrontational way possible. But if this is the case why do I think Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (released in 1965) is the 21st century’s most relevant album?
This time the disconnect between what people will feel the album represents and what it actually represents will be Springsteen’s own. The lyrics are there but the anger feels muted. Like a man defeated by histories cycles of prosperity, greed and depression, his passion feels spent. Having read other reviews I am aware I’m in the minority with this, but I cannot understand why people claim this to be his most zealous album yet. Listen to The River and have your heart broken by the harmonica, listen to Atlantic City and feel the lonely desperation of a distant voice, listen to Racing in the Street and feel the piano bring back memories of a youth lost forever.
These are the songs full of despair that reach deep into your heart and play to the sorrow of your very soul. That’s something I’m just not getting with this album. Whether that’s Bruce’s fault or mine time will tell but as a reviewer I can only write it like I hear it. And, for me Bruce has not only done a lot better in his career, he’s done a lot better this century.