Every veteran rocker reaches that point when, no matter how great his or her skills of transcendence and reinvention, there's no avoiding the -isms. I'm talking about the Dylan-isms, the Jagger-isms -- even, as we saw with his latest album, the Cohen-isms. These well-worn mannerisms, motifs, style quirks and nervous tics can range from humorously endearing to unintentional self-parody. The mighty Bruce Springsteen has his own set, of course, many of which Ben Stiller, a huge fan, crystallized in his amazing "Legends of Springsteen" skit.
Not surprisingly, they're all over his new album, Wrecking Ball: the painfully anguished growl ("Easy Money"); the sing-along rock anthems that are more twinkling piano than actual guitar riffage ("We Take Care of Our Own"); those semi-automatic whoops, hollers and squeals ("Shackled and Drawn"); and, most important, the conscience-of-America poetics that, at times, feel repetitive and rote regardless of intensity/sincerity. Springsteen himself acknowledges this in the downer ode to post-industrial society's losers "Jack of All Trades." "Banker man grows fat," he groans. "Working man grows thin/ It's all happened before, and it'll happen again/ It'll happen again/ Yeah, you bet your life."
So yeah, we've been here before with Springsteen. But there's another line in that tune, delivered in the final verse, that shouldn't be overlooked: "So, you use what you've got and learn to make do/ You take the old, you make it new." It sums up the fundamental sonic personality of Wrecking Ball. The record is quite old in certain respects, most prominently the way it barnstorms through myriad sounds and styles, audaciously mixing and matching them along the way. This kitchen-sink sensibility is more in line with Springsteen's pre- Born to Run incarnation (1972 to '75), back when he composed mini-operas from spiraling Dylan-like wordplay, conga breakdowns, extended funk grooves and so on. In those early days, before Herr Landau come on the scene and began proselytizing the art of streamline pop, Bruce was all about ostentatious ornamentation and statement. Comparing, say, The River to his second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, drives home this point.
But Wrecking Ball isn't a full-tilt throwback, as the details in its grand construction are noticeably current. Using Pete Seeger-style folk revivalism for a canvas -- a fairly recent obsession (see The Seeger Sessions) -- Springsteen works with all manner of color and shading, from the rustic to the uniquely modern. "American Land" and the profoundly acerbic "Death to My Hometown" are both rootsy Irish-glam stompers recalling Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue releases. Speaking of Wilco, numerous songs, including "This Depression" and "You've Got It," come laced with the kind of electro-acoustic textures, sequenced beats and decayed atmospherics one would find on Being There and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. These qualities are even more apparent on the bonus track "Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale)," a piece of moody ambient pop that could've been produced by Jeff Tweedy or Daniel Lanois.
But far and away the most radical touches found on Wrecking Ball are of the gospel variety. With their tinny earbud beats and choir-suffused choruses, the rock 'n' roll hymns "Rocky Ground" and "Land of Hope and Dreams" are as overtly Christian as the version of "Like a Prayer" Madonna and Cee-Lo unleashed at the Super Bowl. This vibe, which actually courses through the entirety of this album in varying degrees, is interesting to ruminate on, as it feels far more personal than a mere stylistic element or literary device. At a time in America's history when the metaphysics of Jesus Christ -- his "message," so to speak -- appear to fall along party lines, Springsteen attempts to reclaim them in the name of social justice and economic equality (there's a little Old Testament anger lurking in there, too, but it's not terribly central to the record).
It's a brave move, if a tad hokey, as in ... white dude gets his gospel on!!! But who knows, maybe such a reclamation, in a country so steeped in spiritual vision, is warranted? As Dr. King once stated, "Any religion which professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a dry-as-dust religion."
I believe the Springsteen on Wrecking Ball would agree.