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The Gripes of Wrath
Peter Murphy, 12 Mar 2012
Let us now praise angry old men. Bruce Springsteen’s 17th album Wrecking Ball might be broadly described as set of 21st century protest songs inflamed by white collar grand larceny. Its memories are long – Bruce has mined these subjects for almost 40 years, in songs like ‘Badlands’, ‘The River’, ‘Atlantic City’ and ‘Youngstown’ – and its sense of context wide: from dust bowl refugees to Mexican migrants, from the flood necropolis of New Orleans to Detroit’s autogeddon, from the Great Depression of the 1920s to the Second Great Depression of (it looks like) the 2020s. Springsteen has long cited John Ford’s film adaptation of Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath as a totem. In the current climate, that book looks like a holy text: “The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
In musical terms, Wrecking Ball utilises a core team of E-Streeters plus guests (Matt Chamberlain, Steve Jordan, the New York Chamber Consort) and marries Seeger Sessions rootenannies to Magic-era Omniplex rock. It also invokes the spirit of Woody via Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello, who appeared on a searing ‘Ghost Of Tom Joad’ at the R&R Hall of Fame a couple of years back, and also plays on a couple of tunes here. If the Seeger Sessions campaign countered neo-con definitions of US patriotism with a secret history of American socialist anthems (and lest we forget, Steinbeck was decried as a communist when The Grapes Of Wrath was published), the new album juxtaposes barroom bawlers, steak-and-onions rockers, country laments, gospel and even hip hop soul, as well as recalling Bruce’s recent sorties with folk punk cut-ups the Dropkick Murphys and second-generation heartland rockers like The Gaslight Anthem.
The curtain raiser, ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’, might be the quintessential Springsteen anthem, laden as it is with bells, strings and Searchers riffs, but it’s one balanced on a knife edge between faith and despair. It’s a man singing a prayer that he knows is a lie, or a lie he’s trying to convert to a prayer. It’s also a great hook because it’s an ambiguous line: it could be Tom Joad’s soliloquy, a civil rights slogan, a mobster’s threat, or a blood vow issued by one of Daniel Woodrell’s Ozarks woodsmen. Here Springsteen hitches one good phrase to an unchained melody and leaves it at that: the verses are almost arbitrary, unfinished, fragments of a map that leads from the shotgun shack to the Superdome. Ultimately, it’s a song that functions as both campfire hymn and middle finger to robber barons bailed out by legislative cronies, and sounds for all the world like Bruce covering Arcade Fire covering Bruce.