For Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball is a surprisingly experimental record. Considering his last album, 2009's Working on a Dream, was a disappointing, rushed and, ultimately, safe mess, this is a good thing. Wrecking Ball finds the Boss creatively reinvigorated, and it's somehow his angriest, most soulful and all around best record since 2002's The Rising.
In fact, like Rising, Wrecking Ball finds Springsteen trying to heal America's psyche. Where The Rising tackled the 9/11 attacks, Wrecking Ball takes on the financial crisis, and by association, the changing of the times. In his catalogue overall, this isn't necessarily a new thing. Springsteen has been chronicling small towns crumbling for decades; single "We Take Care of Our Own" is, in a way, an update of "Born in the U.S.A.," in that it's about the failure of the American dream, even though the chorus is so catchy that a lot of people are probably going to misread it as being a total pro-America anthem. But Springsteen's patriotism has always been a complicated thing, and it is not beholden to governments.
Wrecking Ball also has a lot of The Rising's musicality in its DNA. Both records are defined by Soozie Tyrell's violin, although here she adds more Irish folk flavor, a la Springsteen's We Shall Overcome covers album. But there's also a lot of soul, and songs like "Shackled and Drawn" and "Rocky Ground" should fit perfectly alongside "The Rising" and "Mary's Place" live.
The songs that will get the most attention, though, are the angry ones. "We Take Care of Our Own" is a catchy little call to arms. "Death to My Hometown" integrates a dash of Pogues. "Jack of All Trades," which features Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello*, has been getting a lot of press for the lines "If I had me a gun / I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight," but it's mostly just about good ol' hard work in the land of opportunity.
But when considered overall, Wrecking Ball is more of a folk/soul record, and a celebratory one at that. The title track has been in the band's live set for a few years now, and while the recorded version loses some of its bite, it's still a rip roaring tribute to old haunts (Giants Stadium, specifically). It also features one of two performances from deceased member Clarence Clemons. Clemons' saxophone defined some of the E Street Band's best moments. While Wrecking Ball is being touted as a solo record for Springsteen, it's hard not to look at all of the brass and woodwind players listed in the liner notes and think, "Damn, it took a lot of people to replace the Big Man."
There are a handful of experiments for Springsteen scattered around, but they're all relative to him. The samples and loops he plays with are minimal in scope and tastefully applied. Outside of atmospheric stuff, the most noticeable addition would be electronic beats that keep tempo while we wait for Springsteen, Matt Chamberlain and Max Weinberg to come back in on drums. The real shocker is the rap break by Michelle Moore on "Rocky Ground," if only because A) Springsteen wrote a freaking rap song and B) it's actually kind of good. It's very much in that Roots vein of jammy/rocky/funky/soulful hip-hop. It's not the most mind-blowing thing ever, but it's shockingly not embarrassing.
"Not embarrassing" is kind of a backhanded way of describing Wrecking Ball as good, I admit, but this record goes pretty far outside of Springsteen's comfort zone despite sticking to the blue collar playbook. While producer Ron Aniello shaves a little too much grit off of the tracks (Anyone who caught the E Street Band's sets on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon last week knows these songs sound great loud and raw), he's still preferable to the gloss Brendan O'Brien heaped on Magic and Working on a Dream. The only time his production gets in the way is on previously released live material. While "Wrecking Ball" and bonus track "American Land" sound better on other releases, I still get chills when Clemons fires off two humungous sax solos on "Land of Hope and Dreams." Seventeen albums into his career, Springsteen continues to prove why he's the Boss.
* How awesome would it be if Morello joined the E Street Band? Did you see him Fallon?!