The first track on Bruce Springsteen’s new album gets stuck on rock-and-roll’s Mobius strip — that artistically perilous career lull when you sound like you’re ripping off the band that’s been ripping you off.
The song is called “We Take Care of Our Own,” and it finds the 62-year-old rock hero pantomiming the airy thump of Arcade Fire, a Canadian troupe than has aped Springsteen’s rousing song craft to great acclaim.
Those atmospheric production qualities permeate all 11 tracks of “Wrecking Ball,” Springsteen’s 17th album, along with a garnish of electronic drums, crackling vocal samples, even a rap verse penned by Springsteen and delivered by gospel singer Michelle Moore.
The experimentation is admirable in theory, but the Boss has never been an innovator. We’ve never asked him to lead us into the unknown. Instead, we’ve spent decades demanding that he embody our hopes, validate our values, articulate our angst, comfort and excite us simultaneously. (Strangely, these are the same qualities we seem to look for in a president. Unstrangely, the Obama campaign has made “We Take Care of Our Own” part of its stump soundtrack.)
Where the sonic bells and whistles of “Wrecking Ball” feel distracting, the album retains its lyrical focus. It convenes under the big tent of American grievances, tapping into our collective molar-grinding amid the aftershocks of the subprime-mortgage crisis.
Overweight professionals in the finance sector, heads-up.
“The banker man grows fat, working man grows thin,” Springsteen groans on “Jack of All Trades,” an ode to the laborers who clean our gutters and pick our crops for meager wages and even less respect. “It’s still fat and easy up on Banker’s Hill,” he sings on “Shackled and Drawn,” an odd cocktail of gospel and bluegrass. And on the Celtic-flavored “Death to My Hometown,” he delivers his ire in a quasi-Irish accent: “Send the robber barons straight to hell!”
Is anyone buying this? Yes, the sentiment is righteous, but Springsteen doesn’t sound angry. He sounds angry on our behalf. And that’s the unfortunate niche he’s carved out for himself here — a place where his dutiful rage is matched by dutifully anthemic songs.
The album’s title track is the lone exception. Punctuated with a bright solo from the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons (whom Springsteen eloquently memorializes in the liner notes), the song puffs its chest with a gusto that should make anyone feel like an honorary citizen of New Jersey.
“My home’s here in these Meadowlands where mosquitoes grow big as airplanes,” he sings, linking arms with his neighbors in the face of hardship. “Hold tight to your anger and don’t fall to your fears.”
But on “Land of Hope and Dreams,” that pride feels like a pose. “Big wheels roll through the fields where sunlight streams / Oh, meet me in the land of hope and dreams,” he sings, mixing reds, whites and blues into an unfortunate shade of purple. “This train carries saints and sinners / This train carries losers and winners / This train carries whores and gamblers / This train carries lost souls.” Cartoonishly austere American cliches, all aboard!
If Springsteen still feels the responsibility to narrate the contemporary national psyche, it would be exciting to see him dive into the knotty, information age anxieties that touch everyday American lives. Imagine a Boss song about Google as Big Brother. Instead, it’s more talk about ye olde factories and trains.
It reminds us that it’s been a decade since Springsteen last conjured heavy, truth-telling magic in the studio with his 9/11 response “The Rising.” Since then, too many of his songs have felt as if they were written more out of obligation than urgency. “Wrecking Ball” might make you wonder if the songwriting train has left the station for good.
Bruce Springstreen performs at Verizon Center on April 1.