By Mike Mehalick, Staff Columnist
Not unlike the first time I went to watch Schindler’s List I inadvertently listened to Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s latest entry into Americana Wrecking Ball in reverse order. Such is the world we live in with loosely labeled double-sided DVD’s and iTunes Recently Added play lists working in the literal not the logical; first world problems indeed.
Having now listened to The Boss’ 17th LP backwards and forwards there’s a moment that comes in the common middle point. That warm familiarity that arrives when driving along local sun stained highways. Except this go around Bruce isn’t here to be your California-bound savior of hometown restlessness, but a brother in arms.
Bruce remembers a simpler time, when the phrase “Living the American Dream” seemed like a tangible possibility with hard work leading to homeownership and a fulfilling retirement, rather than stretching unemployment checks to their limits and heart wrenching personal sacrifices to make ends meet. Strong convictions for a multi-millionaire to state so loudly, but Mr. Springsteen, as most of us know, is much more tapped into the hopes and dreams of those in his surrounding locale than any other artist of comparable stature. Hell, he pretty much wrote the guidelines for every blue-collar escapist of his generation and beyond.
This factors into what is Springsteen’s strongest and most cohesive effort since the 9/11 reactionary The Rising. Many have called Wrecking Ball a “return to form” and although this rings true to a certain effect, much of what first leaps off the record is the classic Bruce sound sculpted with the aid of modern technology. As previous efforts Working on a Dream and Magic served as more track-by-track experimental delves into certain influences, along with the occasional nod to the usual, Wrecking Ball from start to finish is a conceptually consistent record in style and sound.
Much of what propels this particular record, and the Bruce sound we all know and love, into the 21st century has to do with layered vocals and trumped up percussion. Album opener “We Take Care of Our Own” kicks in with some of the heaviest drums ever heard on a Springsteen album calling to mind the intro of Darkness on the Edge of Town’s “Badlands”. “Death to My Hometown” and “Shackled and Drawn” center their respective Celtic and Reggae flourishes around huge propulsive backbeats that give Springsteen’s rallying cries the appropriate fist pump and boot stomp reactions. Even the O’Jay’s inspired “Land of Hope and Dreams” opens with a beat mildly Dubstep in nature. The progressive vocal arrangements come to the fore most prominently in tracks like “Rock Ground” where Bruce’s tinny howl is set underneath the sing song opening chorus.
To simply label Wrecking Ball a “return to form” would be to write off all the things Springsteen has picked up and learned along his legendary career path. The banjo picking and sweeping violins missing from early stone cold canons like “Born to Run”, but introduced in later efforts all appear here to their most effective and appropriate use yet. Even “We Are Alive” features a smattering of mariachi horns of which we can only imagine the level of involvement by the beloved late E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Live staples like “Land of Hope and Dreams” and bonus track “American Land” finally get their due studio treatment and serve as two of Wrecking Ball’s strongest along with the eponymous single that served as the funeral rites during Springsteen’s final run of shows at the demolished Giants Stadium in 2009.
Largely, aside from the intricacies detailed above, this is an album that won’t serve up too many surprises for seasoned Boss enthusiasts. Bruce has something to say and he’ll be god damned if he doesn’t expend everything at his disposal to get that message across. “Wrecking Ball” is Bruce Springsteen’s best album since re-forming the E Street Band back in 1999. Not to mention the perfect album for this upcoming St. Patrick’s Day because if The Boss’ acoustic guitar and workingman’s lament doesn’t make you want to drink in excess, nothing will.