Happy 10th Birthday 'Wrecking Ball'! Here's why it's one of Springsteen's greatest albums
When I was approached by London's Endeavour Press to write what would become 2012's "Glory Days: Springsteen's Greatest Albums," the hardest part was grappling with the length. Known for their short, punchy eBooks about popular artists, I had a strict word count — and could only choose eight of Springsteen's albums to spotlight among his "Greatest" for its initial release. I know, impossible, right?
So with that kind of limitation on his vast and impressive discography, it seemed to take some by surprise that I included among them the recently released (at the time) "Wrecking Ball" — especially given I wound up leaving out his first two albums. (Don't worry, I remedied that last bit by including "Greetings" and "The Wild, The Innocent ..." in the second volume, released in 2019.)
But I never once regretted including "Wrecking Ball," and it remains the "new" (i.e. post-1990s) Springsteen album that I most enjoy listening to to this day. To mark its 10th anniversary, below is the chapter from the book that explains why.
Released: March 6, 2012
Highest Chart Position: US 1 / UK 1
When Bruce Springsteen released Wrecking Ball on March 6, 2012, he was coming off two very different albums: 2007’s Magic, his rockingest in years and also a stinging indictment of the George W. Bush administration, and 2009’s Working on a Dream, an eclectic mix of styles that struck many fans as a kind of mish-mosh, possibly released to give Springsteen an excuse to continue touring. Most hoped Wrecking Ball would be more like the former than the latter, but it wound up being something entirely different from either.
In fact, if it bore resemblance to any of his previous works it was We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Springsteen’s 2006 big-band folk tribute to Pete Seeger. It wasn’t the sequel to that album some had predicted — or feared — but it was certainly more informed by the diverse folk-based styles and rhythms of that record than it was by any of Springsteen’s ’70s or ’80s output. Songs like “We Take Care of Our Own” and the title track have a rock vibe, but the majority of Wrecking Ball is more of a cross between an Irish wake and a revival meeting, packed with whoops, yelps, stomps, hollers and the occasional musket.
But beyond that, Wrecking Ball also feels like the culmination of so many of Springsteen’s interests and diversions of the prior decade — in addition to the Seeger Sessions detour, you’ll hear evidence of his Devils & Dust solo ruminations, his political activism and his collaborations with younger artists like Arcade Fire and the Dropkick Murphys.
And he weaves it together seamlessly, a patchwork of styles, archival snippets and evocative allusions sitting comfortably alongside anachronistic references to vultures, fat cats and robber barons. And much of it is tied to the simple theme that comes amid the stomping country rhythms and the chugging shout of the song “Shackled and Drawn”: Let a man work, is that so wrong?
It’s undeniably a political question, and at its core Wrecking Ball is about unfair income disparity, the mortgage crisis, and how desperate people can get when robbed of both the opportunity to work and the dignity that goes along with it. But like so much of Springsteen, it’s also about hope and the need to connect — and yes, “take care of our own,” even if that song is pointedly ambiguous about whether it’s something we can ever achieve.
The album was Springsteen’s tenth No. 1 album – “for one consecutive week!” he would joke during the concerts on his Wrecking Ball tour – but beyond that, the album was also greeted by a flood of analysis, much praise and its fair share of criticism, both for a worldview that for Springsteen had become increasingly and publicly liberal – an affront to some of his more conservative fans – and the album’s pointed lack of evocative personal stories, like the tales of the Magic Rat and Crazy Janey that populated his older work.
Not that it doesn’t have its share of individual characters, from the struggling laborer of the crushing “Jack of All Trades” to the armed-and-dangerous pair of 99 percenters in “Easy Money.” But it’s true that their stories aren’t the intricate, descriptive character studies of years past — you won’t find Nebraska’s Joe Roberts anywhere on Wrecking Ball.
Luckily, the album’s penchant for rollicking Americana – the perfect vehicle for Springsteen’s message about modern atrocities that have been repeated over and over again since time immemorial – rescues it from being the downer you might expect given the subject matter. As for the lack of colorful characters, that choice feels organic: These aren’t fringe players but regular folks who have to “put out the cat” before heading out looking for “Easy Money” armed with a Smith & Wesson 38.
Nowhere is that more apparent than on “Jack of All Trades.” Told in waltz time amid a plaintive piano and an anguished Tom Morello guitar solo, its point of view of an unemployed man trying to convince his wife that “we’ll be alright” is at once riveting, moving and heartbreaking. Springsteen somehow conveys the soul of a man who desperately wants to believe his own words of comfort, but can’t; the result is one of the most remarkable songs of his career.
Others are almost equally as deft, even as they differ in their approaches. On the pounding “Death to My Hometown,” Springsteen marries military metaphors with Irish folk rhythms (a la The Seeger Sessions’ “Mrs. McGrath”), making it at once the album’s angriest song and also its most jubilant. And on the restrained, gospel-infused “Rocky Ground,” the short rap by gospel singer Michelle Moore – in which a struggling mother agonizes over the “bottom dropping out” as her prayers are greeted by silence – is perfectly coupled with Springsteen’s almost buoyant howl; it’s one of many elements that make the song, rife with religious imagery, so memorable and ambitious, like much of the album.
Wrecking Ball does falter a bit in the middle, with a heartfelt delivery saving “This Depression” from sonic noodling that stands in for depth, and “You’ve Got It” sounding like it wandered in off a Bob Seger album, its bluesy sexiness notwithstanding. But the title track, though it seemed something of a novelty song about the Meadowlands when he debuted it in concert in 2009, works much better in the context of the difficulties chronicled elsewhere on Wrecking Ball. Springsteen’s insistence that “hard times come and hard times go, just to come again” becomes, more than ever, a worthy musical challenge to stand up to the forces that grind us down.
And from there, the album soars to a close. The sublime “Rocky Ground” leads in to a studio version of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” first introduced on the E Street Band reunion tour back in 1999. It may seem an odd choice given the minimal ESB participation on Wrecking Ball – like Tunnel of Love, it was essentially a solo album – but all doubts are erased when, in his last recorded performance, the late Clarence Clemons’ saxophone blares as punctuation to Springsteen’s “bells of freedom ringin.’” It’s a perfect climax, a feeling of despair turning into faith, even through tears.
The album’s coda is the weird, wonderful “We Are Alive,” awash with voices of people who died taking a stand or seeking a better life. Interestingly, they do it amidst a musical quote from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” — a song that basically compares love to hell. For an album that tackles adversity, life’s inequities, faith, redemption and standing up to the battering forces of time itself, it seems only appropriate that it should conclude with Springsteen literally whistling past a graveyard; in the end, he seems to be asking, what else is there to do?
In fact, through it all, Springsteen sounds more resigned than restless — an attitude probably befitting his age and place in life. Like Bob Dylan, who started off faking his aged troubadour voice before actually growing into it, Springsteen’s mature drawl, focused by his co-producer Ron Aniello, serves him well on Wrecking Ball. Even more than the lyrics, it’s the knowing world-weariness behind them that makes the songs so haunting, and so uplifting when anger and desperation finally give way, however begrudgingly, to hope.
It’s a testament to Springsteen’s continued influence that in 2012, almost 40 years after he made his recorded debut with Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., he was capable of producing such a provocative work, one so mature, ambitious and relevant, without sounding like he was repeating himself or rehashing old glories. It’s also telling how defiantly he sings “Bring on your wrecking ball,” as if he might actually be able to successfully rage against the dying of the light. Given the evidence at hand, I’d take those odds.
To check out "Glory Days: Springsteen's Greatest Albums," the collection of Springsteen essays and commentary by Peter Chianca of Blogness on the Edge of Town, visit Amazon.com.