Thursday, March 8, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Bruce Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball" Is the Soundtrack to the Revolution In My Mind

As I listen to “We Take Care of Our Own”, the first single from Bruce Springsteen’s new album, “Wrecking Ball”, the image I have in my head is one of an elderly Cheyenne warrior named White Antelope. White Antelope was killed in the Sand Creek massacre in 1864. At Sand Creek, the United States Army laid waste to an entire village of friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, including women, children, and aged. Chief Black Kettle raised an American flag as the attack began. HIS American flag. One of his most prized possessions. A flag that was given to him by US officials who told him that no one who stood under the stars and stripes would ever be fired upon. White Antelope stood under those stars and stripes, then walked toward the Army officials saying, "stop...stop", assuming that if they heard his words and saw the flag, they would live up to their promise. They didn't.

That’s the America that the Boss sings about in “We Take Care of Our Own” and throughout “Wrecking Ball”. One of unfulfilled commitments. We were promised better than this. Where is our American dream?



I’m not a full-on dyed-in-the-wool Bruce Springsteen fan. I like his music. I appreciate him as an artist. I recognize his genius. I love several of his songs. But he hasn’t affected me in the way he has most of his diehard fans. I loved “Born In the USA” when I was 14 or so and I’ve heard all of his albums since then. I’ve enjoyed them all at some level, but “Wrecking Ball” is the first one to really grab me by the throat and refuse to let go.

It’s not so much the music as it is the attitude and emotion. The music is in one sense much the same and in another sense, very different. It’s the same big sound, the same chord progressions and keys that make up the Boss’s signature sound. There are many Celtic and folky elements employed, as well; reminiscent of Springsteen’s quasi-tribute album to Pete Seeger, 2006’s “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions”.

But there are new sounds; mostly electronic and hip hop effects – loops, scratches, etc. One track even features a brief rap by a backup vocalist. To my ears, these new elements work. Since I’m not a diehard fan from Bruce’s early days, they aren’t exactly a shock to my ears. Springsteen and co-producer Ron Aniello use them sparingly to good effect. I also won’t begrudge an artist who has more than proven himself the opportunity to try new and adventuresome things. I tried to be unhappy with Steve Earle when he followed the same road a few years back, employing electronic and hip hop studio trickery on his “Washington Square Serenade”, but ultimately appreciated his exploration with it, as well.

But, again, the music isn’t what matters here as much as the sentiment and the feeling.

We all know Springsteen has a remarkable ability to connect to the everyman; no small feat for a multimillionaire rock god. He sings songs of the common man that are generally inspiring. Songs of breaking out and getting away (“Born to Run”), songs of enjoying some good times in the midst of bad times (“Atlantic City”), songs of respectful homage to struggling pillars of our experience that we continue to hold hope and faith in (“My Hometown”).

Even “The Rising”, his famous post-9/11 record, was hopeful. It was broken-hearted and sad. But the triumph was there.

Bruce Springsteen sings about hard times and the determination and spirit that keep us hoping for better times ahead, striving forward, one foot in front of the other.

Not here.

On “Wrecking Ball” the Boss is mad as hell and doesn’t see an easy solution on the horizon.

This is the bleakest and most defiant thing he’s released since “Nebraska”. But “Nebraska” – one of the few Springsteen records that I can return to time and again – was, to me, almost more of an exercise in literature. Like “Wrecking Ball”, the music wasn’t so much the key as the story. True enough; the stories on “Nebraska” were bleak and defiant. But they were individual stories that didn’t add up to a collective statement of any kind.

One of my favorite movie scenes is in “White Men Can’t Jump”, where Rosie Perez (Gloria) and Woody Harrelson (Billy) are lying in bed. Gloria says she’s thirsty and Billy gallantly gets up to get her a glass of water. Instead of gratitude, he gets a lecture from his girlfriend about how she didn’t actually want a glass of water. Like any guy would, Billy says something to the effect of, “but you said you were thirsty!” Her response: “See, if I'm thirsty. I don't want a glass of water, I want you to sympathize. I want you to say, ‘Gloria, I too know what it feels like to be thirsty. I too have had a dry mouth.’ I want you to connect with me through sharing and understanding the concept of dry mouthedness.”

It’s “crazy woman talk” in the context of that movie. And in real life, as a man, I generally want action, results, and a quick fix instead of solidarity and sympathy. Except when it comes to what I call revolution music.

I’m fascinated with the concept of revolution. Always have been.

A few years back, I was involved in a charity that asserted that the world is a messed up place and that most people WANTED to make a difference, but simply didn’t think they could. So apathy prevailed. We attempted a revolution against that attitude. It succeeded. For a while. Lives were touched. We made a difference for a lot of people.

And then we were forced to shut it down. Because of things that none of us little guys on the ground could do anything about. I only mention it because it was a powerful message to us, a group that was trying to be subversive by being kind and generous. That message was POWER PREVAILS.

There’s still a revolution going on in my mind, I just haven’t figured out how to get it out yet.

Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” is the soundtrack to the revolution in my mind.


Some songs offer answers. Punk rock did: Eat the rich. Anarchy.

Punk sought to destroy the system. The problem with that is that some other system must come up in its place. What then? The Clash was the only punk band to encourage destruction of a corrupt system and also to contribute ideas for the establishment of a new, better system. They’re also the only punk band that outlasted the initial punk movement.

As it was becoming a cultural force, hip hop offered answers: Fuck tha Police. Fight the Power.

Guess what? Now hip hop IS the power. It became the system. It’s no longer a tool of subversion. It’s the mainest of mainstream pop culture. Where rappers once talked about their plight and of toppling the system, they now talk about their bling, expensive liquor, jets, and bunches of Benjamins.

When we’re talking about true revolution music, the best kind doesn’t offer an answer. Usually because there are no easy answers. At the time such a song is written, answers often seem impossible to find.

The answer doesn’t really matter. The here and now does. This feeling. This experience.

Woody Guthrie didn’t talk about how to end corruption and how the poor could climb society’s ladder. He expressed solidarity with the poor and told their story.

When four students were killed at Kent State in Ohio as part of a Vietnam War protest, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young didn’t record a song that submitted a solution to the conflict. They quickly recorded an incendiary track that detailed the tragedy and pointed out how wrong it was.

That’s what Bruce does here. And that’s what I needed. I suspect there’s a lot more out there who needed this, too.

In some of the international publicity he did leading up to the release of “Wrecking Ball”, Springsteen was quoted as saying, “What happened to my country was un-American”.

Damn right.

People took the bait, bought the lie, and tried to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Over time, everyone began to sense something wasn’t right about this whole American Dream thing. In my lifetime, I saw the general population completely wake up to the fact that it was all a sham. But there was nothing anyone could do about it, except watch the whole thing swirl down the drain while the fat cats made out.

You often hear the phrase “Post 9/11”. But I look at America now as “Post Katrina”.

Things changed on 9/11. Forever. The moment we understood what had really happened, we all knew the whole world would be different.

But we pulled together. As the satirical newspaper The Onion remarked on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, people all over the world actually acted like human beings for fifteen seconds. It was awful, but there was something beautiful at play. There was hope.

But we got used to it and moved on.

Then Katrina happened. People asked for help and didn’t get it. People died. People were packed into the Superdome because we couldn’t help them any other way. They died there, too. We watched it on the news and asked, “THIS is America? This looks like a third world country.”

I won’t get political, but you can’t look at the picture of President Bush gazing out the window of Air Force One at the destruction of Katrina below him without noticing some pretty profound imagery.

And of course, then Kanye said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” live on national TV. I am not saying and will not say that George Bush is racist. But I will insist that the statement got people thinking - about a lot of things.

Since Katrina, there has been a feeling in America, like we were sitting on a powder keg. As The Onion pointed out in that same 9/11 tenth anniversary piece, we look back at the weeks following 9/11 now and we acknowledge that they were precipitated by such an awful thing, but we admit that in some jacked up way the world was better, then, too. It was better because we acted like human beings to each other. Even if it was only for the proverbial fifteen seconds. We cared for each other. We reached out to one another. There was love.

When the American powder keg blew up in 2008 and the economy collapsed like sensible people everywhere knew it would, the final nail was driven into that coffin of acting like human beings that have some level of love for one another.

There is anger and injustice and bitterness and distrust everywhere. Those at the top of the system used to lie to us. But they would soothe us while they did it. They wanted us to swallow the pill easy.

In the wake of all of this, they’re not even lying anymore. They’re not being gentle anymore. There’s no easiness to it. They’re looking us in the face while they rob us blind.

The “robber barons”, as Springsteen calls them, are telling us to our face what they’re after and what they’re willing to do to get it.

This is not a time for subtlety.

They killed the American dream.

And so Springsteen’s songs on “Wrecking Ball” are not subtle either.

“Shackled and Drawn”

“Easy Money”

“Death to My Hometown”

These are not stories of a better place or time; past, present, or future.

These are songs about how good and truly well fucked our current situation actually is. These are desperate and bleak and angry songs of leaning on one another in hard times.

Solidarity.

And while there isn’t much triumph to be found, there is hope.

Not hope in a better tomorrow, necessarily. But hope in the fact that somehow we’ll get through.

When the Carter Family sang, “No Depression” during the Great Depression, it was with the hope of heaven: “I'm going where there's no depression / To a better land that's free from care / I'll leave this world of toil and trouble / My home's in heaven / I'm going there”

That’s not a song of triumph ahead. It’s a song about surviving the hard times for an unforeseeable future until we’re dead and don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Another classic revolution song, “We Shall Overcome” isn’t a “we’ll beat you” song of victory. It’s a “we’ll beat you some day in some fashion and we may not even be able to envision it now, but we’ll keep trying until we figure something out” song of survival.

Those moments of hope are here in “Wrecking Ball”, too. Most evidently in “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “Jack of All Trades”.

In “Jack of All Trades”, Springsteen says he’ll take on whatever work he can to help his family get by. And he declares that while times are hard and he is angry, they’ll be alright. Some way or another.

We all will. This American experiment is messed up. Almost unrecognizable. But we’ll make it. Somehow. No one knows how. It won’t be easy. But the will of survival will kick in eventually. It’ll be sloppy, maybe even ugly. But we’ll keep trudging ahead. And we’ll figure something else out. When we get “there”, it’ll look different than it used to. But we WILL get there. We have to.

And The Boss is right there, alongside us, singing our song with us the whole way.

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Ryan Mifflin is the host of Dirty Roots Radio, a "Quentin Tarantino-ization of a spaghetti western style old-school record show" featuring renegade country, vintage gospel, raw blues, greasy soul, punk, and funk. Tune in to Dirty Roots Radio every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) on WGRN 89.5 FM. Listen online from anywhere in the world at www.wgrn.net.

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