In case you had missed it, Bruce Springsteen writes his best music against a backdrop of fear, anger and hopelessness. The sunny optimism of Working on a Dream? No thanks, I'll take the dose of despair any day. The latest edition to his discography, Wrecking Ball, is no different.
The 'story' behind the album has been well told in the last few months - the Boss is pissed off with the rich folk of America who have crushed the lives of the hard-working men and women. In a way, the album's tales complete an overarching thematic narrative. Born to Run presented us with characters who were, truth be told, trapped in a dead end. The narrators of 'Thunder Road', 'Born to Run' and going back to 'Rosalita' all saw the potential for something better ("we're pulling out of here to win," "Baby we were born to run," "And the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance"), but these songs take place in the present tense. We don't actually find out at the time if the better life materializes.
There are hints in other albums, but Wrecking Ball confirms exactly what happens. You dream your whole life of escaping but you can't and the rich man shits all over you. I'm not American, so can't really comment on the cultural ramifications of Bruce's words, but it seems pretty clear that the American Dream has become a nightmare for most of the country's inhabitants.
Critics are lauding the album - best since Tunnel of Love, most confrontational since Nebraska. In this insightful piece, Louis Masur called Wrecking Ball the most musically innovative album of Springsteen's career; he praised the constant tension between words and music as an old Springsteenian songwriting device. So it must be pretty damn good? Right?
It is. And yet, and yet...There is something about the album that doesn't quite click - that 'thing' is the music. Listening to the songs, it is easy to understand Masur's argument. We've got the jingoistic 'We Take Care of Our Own,' the romping 'Shackled and Drawn', and the melancholy 'Jack Of All Trades', each of which present alternative musical voices to the lyrics. My problem is that I don't hear the music as oppositional; rather I hear it as the stylistic culmination of a decade's work.
Going back ten or so years, The Rising seemed to mark a shift in Springsteen's idiolect (the musical characteristics of a particular artist) songs towards Celtic-folk and gospel models. String sections become more prominent ('Lonesome Days', 'Mary's Place', 'The Rising', 'Waiting on a Sunny Day'). In the same songs, the 'breakdown' section is a notable addition to the standard verse-chorus structures. Derived from gospel, the texture drops away, the harmonies alternate between the tonic chord and the subdominant (up a fourth), and sometimes there is a repeated line ("turn it up" in 'Mary's Place'; 'With these hands' in 'My City of Ruins'). Finally, Springsteen uses a full backing vocal section, which gives the impression of a gospel choir, rather than the single voices that provided harmonies in earlier songs (Thunder Road, Badlands etc.).
We shouldn't be surprised by these changes - the breakdown section is quite evident in 'Backstreets' from 25 years earlier (the repeated 'Running on the Backstreets' line over oscillating G and C major chords), and in a quite brilliant essay for American Music, Joel Dinerstein convincingly demonstrated the connections between Springsteen's performing and musical style and soul music (Vol. 25, no. 4, 2007). Through the 2000s, Springsteen explored the folk genre in even greater depth with We Shall Overcome, before returning to rock aesthetic with Magic. Nonetheless the strings are still apparent on 'Girls In Their Summer Clothes' and 'Long Walk Home' and the pentatonic folk influences audible in 'You'll Be Coming Down.'
Wrecking Ball crystallizes these influences and thus it acts as the next (final perhaps?) musical step in this stage of Springsteen's career. 'Shackled and Drawn' has a pentatonic melody played by strings, three chords (Bb, Eb and F), a gospel choir, and a final call-to-arms for "everyone to stand up and be counted tonight..."; gospel vocals mark 'Land of Hope and Dreams'; 'We Take Care Of Our Own' uses celli in the same manner as 'The Rising' and 'Lonesome Days' and features a superb breakdown section to lead into the final chorus; 'Death to my Hometown' and 'Easy Money' are straight out of Irish lands; 'You've Got It' has blues inflections in the vocal and slide guitar, but, textually, sits firmly in Springsteen's post-2000 style with its acoustic guitar foundation and ringing electric slightly in the background. Much has been made of the drum loops created by Springsteen, but the beats themselves often mirror Max Weinberg's contributions, in particular, the heavy and deliberate snare hits.
My point is that the sounds of Wrecking Ball appear as an end in itself. Above these sounds, Springsteen has placed a selection of stories.
These observations ultimately lead us to that fundamental question of what can or does music mean? I will not attempt to answer that in any detail today; suffice to say, the most convincing argument I have read is Allan Moore's on the "Persona-Environment Relation" (Music Theory Online, 2004, developed in his 2001 book Rock: The Primary Text). His method for interpretation is based on the analogy of a person's speech (i.e. the singer) and their body language (i.e. the accompanying features). He outlines a range of types of relationships: broadly, the music indicates a style (i.e no impact on the lyrics), the music negates the lyrics, and the music enhances the lyrics. Thus, a song 'means' the combination of the various strands. Moore does not equate aesthetic judgment with these categories, although my initial belief is that the good songwriters naturally gravitate towards the latter categories. It does not seem unreasonable to equate the first category with someone delivering a speech with no body movement or energy; likewise, lyrics upon which the music has no effect have, I believe, less impact.
The critics are lining up to state that the high tempo, folk songs in fact mask the dark stories told by Springsteen. Fair call. However, from the perspective of his career development, it is equally possible to hear the lyrics and music as NOT tightly married. Granted, the folk and gospel styles connote 'the people' and their struggles, so perhaps, it is like a marriage of convenience. But the level of irony that was so gloriously apparent and biting in Springsteen's earlier days is much less convincing and, dare I say, meaningful in Wrecking Ball. Even though 'Born in the U.S.A' fitted the sound of stadium rock, it's cold textures from walls of synths and snares (again from Moore - take away one drum or one keyboard and there's nothing there) created a high degree of ambiguity. 'We Take Care of Our Own', its supposed successor, makes, paradoxically, this ambiguity all to obvious.
In closing, Wrecking Ball is a fine album. It is a testament to Springsteen's skill as a songwriter and a musician that, despite my problems, his stories are vivid and his sounds are so fresh and energetic that they induce repeated listening. Dave Marsh once said that the E Street Band was the greatest rock and roll band on the planet - I don't disagree. Springsteen by himself ain't half bad either. I will predict now that he will feature on most critical outlets' "Best of" lists at the end of 2012. All this for a guy who must be close to collecting a superannuation payment. But in another context, sitting quite close in my iTunes library to Wrecking Ball are his decades-old songs; when it comes to evaluating the best Boss songs, I don't think the new material will quite make the grade.
Postscript: As an addendum to yesterday's post, I have changed my mind - Jack Of All Trades might make the cut. Here, the tension between music and lyrics works. With the slow tempo and mournful trumpet solo, there is a lack of energy. Springsteen's vocal matches this perfectly, even though the surface message is positive (I'm a jack of all trades, we'll be alright); each phrase is one bar long and there are gaps between every line; the melody arches in the middle of sections but falls away as the narrator delivers his most optimistic words. Springsteen captures the voice of someone who has slogged his guts out, but has been screwed over and now...well, maybe, he just can't be fucked anymore. Don't know what Tom Morello's guitar solo at the end adds (come on Bruce, this isn't a power ballad!), but if you turn the song off at 4'57", it's a poignant tribute to the working class.