Style: Rock and folk; compare to Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan
Top tracks: "Wrecking Ball," "Jack of All Trades," "Land of Hope and Dreams"
After 2009's perfunctory, by-the-numbers Working on a Dream, Bruce Springsteen seemed in danger of becoming a caricature of himself; the Boss punching the clock and delivering uninspired couplets from the comfort of a lush corner office instead of trafficking in the blood and sweat of the factory floor.
But Brooooce is back, and Wrecking Ball (Columbia) 4 stars, his finest album in a decade, gives the lie to the notion of rock legends coasting on past glories. Wrecking Ball is a synthesis of Springsteen sounds old and new, with muscular rockers shouldering up next to atmospheric ballads and raucous folk hootenannies. It's haunted by the ghost of a lost band member and fueled by the compassion for working-class Americans that has always been the impetus behind Springsteen's greatest songs. And, in the best tradition of protest music, it's mad as hell.
In a world of fat-cat bankers and robber barons in corporate boardrooms, in a time when far too many people struggle merely to survive, Springsteen surveys the carnage. The Celtic-influenced "Shackled and Drawn" and the bleak, beautiful ballad "Jack of All Trades" explore the deep resignation and world-weariness of people who are too worn down to fight anymore. But there is anger and seething resentment here as well, particularly on the defiant title track and on first single "We Take Care of Our Own," an updated but no less ironic "Born in the U.S.A." in which Springsteen probes vast societal indifference to the plight of the poor.
Against all odds, there is also faith, hope, and love, particularly on the glorious, anthemic "Land of Hope and Dreams," long a staple of Springsteen's concerts, and now finally given the rich studio treatment it deserves. Featuring the late Clarence Clemons' last recorded sax solo, this is gospel music in all senses of the term, as Springsteen envisions a coming world where faith will be rewarded, where social divisions will be broken down, and where fools and kings alike will find welcome.
The writing becomes a little too generic and cliché-ridden on a few songs on the second half of the album, and that's enough to derail Wrecking Ball just short of classic status. But there are half a dozen songs here that are as incisive and powerful as anything Springsteen has ever written. These are protest songs that transcend eras and ephemeral trends because injustice, in its myriad configurations, is always timeless. It's great to have Springsteen back, and thundering prophetically.
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