Bruce Springsteen has done a lot in the last 20 years: toured
for John Kerry, immortalized a horrific moment of police brutality in "American Skin
(41 Shots)," and put his money where his mouth is as America's Poster Boy, with a
big fat folk album enlisting a dozen sepia-toned authenticity arbiters, as well
as a dusty Nebraska-y one that counted anal sex among its
details. What he hasn't done is made a record as memorable as any from the 20
years preceding. But excellent dribs and drabs (2007's rightfully Magnetic
Fields-compared "Your Own Worst Enemy," the Seeger band's recast of Nebraska's "Open All Night") continue to elicit hope. So did the announcement that this week's Wrecking Ball
promises to do for Occupy (an event whose workings continue in the present
tense) what the The Rising attempted for 9/11 (an event that
was final and well-mythologized before Springsteen could articulate his
feelings). This is the Boss' juiciest shot since Vietnam at articulating the
compassion in American frustration -- and I'm a betting man.
"We Take Care of Our Own"
Glockenspiel! For that alone, this is his best, E Street-est
opener in years. Unfortunately for said glockenspiel, this melody is as
one-note and underdeveloped as "Radio Nowhere," another fine song released to
radio nowhere. Unfortunately, the title
adds no further commentary to this supposed affront to the banking firm of
Romney & Santorum.
Does "Kumbaya" mean anything to you personally? That's
quickly becoming the grand effect of this record: beauteous, cavernous chanting short on meaning that anyone but a political candidate can use.
"Shackled and Drawn"
What I didn't anticipate is so how compelling these fiddle-and-choir
jams would be, though you don't know pop if you didn't think the drums would be
this loud. The Seeger Sessions has contorted the Boss' voice
beyond repair, but that's no reason not to have fun with his full-throated
gospel tunes. Just don't find them so uplifting that you glance for lyrics. The
faux-congregation leader fadeout is cute.
"Jack of All Trades"
"Clean the leaves out your drain/ I'm in your room to keep
out the rain" -- finally, an image, three songs late onto a record that announced
itself as centrist bait "from the shotgun shack to the Superdome." I'd like to
take care of him all right. In waltz time for six minutes, Bruce makes good on
that common man thing he's been working for 40 years. Few common men have a
horn section, but he really shows his commonness by gunning down his oppressors
in the final verses with a flashy six-string salute from Tom Morello.
"Death to My Hometown"
Squishing his voice (and kick drum) even more like Warren
Zevon, pounding the floor and announcing his new Irish murmur with matching
pennywhistles, this is the best, most jubilant piece of music Springsteen has penned in
ages, and its battle imagery ("no powder flash blinded the eye"; "the vultures
picked their bones") is the least simplistic on the record. Which is a hoot
considering this is the simplest us-or-them fight song here. Could Occupiers
use it? Probably not. But anyone with a desire to sing along with a Springsteen
chorus again could.
"I've been lost but never this lost," he admits, and it's
true: he's overrelying on that pounding Zevon-ness, that growl, and probably his
looks, too. But "I need your heart/ In this depression" is too true to deny.
It's just that TV on the Radio's Dear Science did so much
more with it.
From the first second, this is classic Bruce: "Come on take
your best shot/ Let's see what you got," a Meadowlands namecheck, more of that
glockenspiel and violin, a gorgeously plain melody with careerist horns for
extra kick. The second-most rousing thing here, which I suppose means
second-best until I warm to that Morello cameo. The problem is it feels
bushleague (and Bush-league; should we really be daring the wreckers to further
wreck us?). Word to rockist liberals: Brad
Paisley ("A Man Don't Have to Die") and Miranda Lambert ("Lemon Drop") had more
to say than that.
"You've Got It"
While we're drowning in nonspecifics, we might as well hit on
a sexy one that hinges on a funky if nonspecific "it." "Honey it ain't got a
name/ You just know it when you see it": porn?
I like this album a lot more than I'm probably letting on,
especially when it's playing in the background, which is suspicious. Whose
rousing chants sound better from far away? And what's with the whole distance
thing anyway? It's that same lack of intimacy that's keeping me from loving the
Men's Open Your Heart. Whether albums are supposed to speak
to you directly or work as a blank canvas for useful thoughts is your opinion,
but this guy did used to have more to say besides sending prayers. He even
intertwines a rapper with nothing to say. This record is
gorgeous but bland.
"Land of Hope and Dreams"
After the title tune, this is the second thing here that
could pass muster on a lot of other Boss albums ("thunder's rolling down this
track"), and it's got a real sad memento of Clarence Clemons' much-missed
honking greatness. Maybe I'm imagining things, but the singing steps it up a
notch. Seven minutes, feels shorter. Always feels like you've already heard it
before, but what Bruce song doesn't when you hear it for the first time?
"We Are Alive"
A weird, not-quite-uplifting little boogie to end the
thing -- where's the "We Take Care of Our Own" reprise? David Fricke apparently
called this album (which has no bad songs) "bravely apolitical," which is
insane. Yeah, I get it, both sides are to blame, blah blah. But you're going to
have to pick one in order to activate any kind of care you want to take of your
own in November. And I do wish this smart, well-meaning vet had something
active to say about that. Reassuring his minions that hard times come and go
unwittingly separates him from the common folk he wishes he could still
portray. The common folk ignored his
Wal-Mart exclusive last record because they're in the streets with shit to do.