2:54pm

Mon March 5, 2012
Music Reviews

Bruce Springsteen's Hard-Bitten Pop Optimism

Originally published on Mon March 5, 2012 5:02 pm

Ever since The Rising in 2002 — and arguably since 1984's Born in the U.S.A.Bruce Springsteen releases have functioned as State of the Union addresses as much as pop LPs. Wrecking Ball does, too, beginning with its Occupy-era lead single "We Take Care of Our Own," an anthemic bit of wishful thinking which, like "Born in the U.S.A.," seems easy to misinterpret by 180 degrees if you don't pay attention to the verses between the chorus.

But Wrecking Ball has a lot going on. At its core, it's a big-band folk record like the 2005 Seeger Sessions LP, full of accordions, fiddles, banjos, hand claps and foot stomps. Some Irish-flavored tracks sound like Springsteen fronting The Pogues, while others mix up American folk traditions. "We Are Alive" borrows from Johnny Cash and June Carter's "Ring of Fire."

And "Rocky Ground," my favorite song on the record, draws on gospel and hip-hop and maybe a bit of Levon Helm singing "The Weight" to create the impossible: a great Bruce Springsteen song with a rap, delivered by gospel singer-cum-MC Michelle Moore.

Springsteen oversells a couple of narratives here, and the record's a hodgepodge: The set surveys just about every style Springsteen has ever played, including classic E Street rock 'n' roll. Wrecking Ball is his first album since the death of his longtime bandmate and saxophone-playing foil, Clarence Clemons, and "Land of Hope and Dreams" features what might be Clemons' last recorded sax solo. A song that draws on two great 20th-century spirituals, Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" and Woody Guthrie's version of "This Train (Is Bound for Glory)," it's an object lesson in the sort of hard-bitten pop optimism that Springsteen has made into a secular religion. It's also a fitting farewell to a friend.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Finally, this hour, he's on his 17th album. Bruce Springsteen has a new release out tomorrow. It's called "Wrecking Ball." And it's Springsteen's first album since the death of his longtime saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Will Hermes has our review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN")

WILL HERMES, BYLINE: Ever since "The Rising" in 2002 and arguably since 1984's "Born in the U.S.A.," Bruce Springsteen releases have functioned, for better or worse, as state of the union addresses as much as pop L.P.s. "Wrecking Ball" does, too, beginning with its Occupy-era lead single "We Take Care of Our Own," an anthemic bit of wishful thinking which, like "Born In The U.S.A.," seems easy to misinterpret by 180 degrees if you don't pay attention to the verses between the chorus.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) From Chicago to New Orleans, from the muscle to the bone, from the shotgun shack to the Superdome, we yelled help. The cavalry stayed home. There ain't no one hearing the bugle blown. We take care of our own. We take care of our own. Wherever this flag has flown, we take care of our own.

HERMES: But "Wrecking Ball" has a lot going on. At core, it's a big-band folk record, like the 2005 "Seeger Sessions" album: full of accordions, fiddles, banjos, handclaps and foot stomps. Some Irish-flavored tracks sound like Springsteen fronting The Pogues. Others mix up American folk traditions. "We Are Alive" borrows from Johnny Cash and June Carter's "Ring of Fire."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE ALIVE")

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Our souls will rise to carry the fire and light the spark, to fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.

HERMES: My favorite song on the record draws on gospel and hip-hop to create the impossible: A great Bruce Springsteen song with a rap, delivered by gospel singer-cum-M.C. Michelle Moore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKY ROAD")

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Stars have faded. The sky is still. Sun is in the heavens, and a new day is rising.

MICHELLE MOORE: (Rapping) You use your muscle and your mind, and you pray your best that your best is good enough. The Lord will do the rest. You raise your children, and you teach them to walk straight and sure. You pray that hard times, hard times come no more. You try to sleep. You toss and turn. The bottom is dropping out. Where you once had faith, now there's only doubt. You pray for guidance, only silence now meets your prayers. The morning breaks. You awake, but no one is there.

HERMES: Springsteen oversells a couple of narratives here, and the record's something of a hodgepodge. It surveys just about every style Springsteen has ever done, including classic E Street rock 'n' roll. This song, "Land of Hope and Dreams," features what might be Clarence Clemons's last recorded sax solo and draws on two great 20th-century spirituals: Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" and Woody Guthrie's version of "This Train Is Bound for Glory." It's an object lesson in the sort of hard-bitten pop optimism that Springsteen's made into a secular religion, and it's also a fitting farewell to a friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAND OF HOPE AND DREAMS")

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Come on this train...

BLOCK: The new album from Bruce Springsteen is called "Wrecking Ball." Our critic Will Hermes is author of the book "Love Goes to Buildings on Fire."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAND OF HOPE AND DREAMS")

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) You don't need no ticket. Oh, you got to do this. Just get on board, on board this train...

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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