Bruce Springsteen has been down this road before. The characters on Wrecking Ball — his 17th album, his third consecutive No. 1 debut, and the only LP to merit a five-star review in Rolling Stone since Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — are broken, beaten down, and hopeless to the point of giving up on life. Wrecking Ball is being called Springsteen's "Occupy album," but he's been occupying that space where blue-collar dreams are crushed for most of his 40 years as a recording artist.
You can trace the roots of the album's 13 tracks to the factory workers and daydream believers of 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town. But these songs of desperation and desolation, lyrically at least, have more in common with 1982's stark acoustic set Nebraska and the New Depression chills of 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad.
When Springsteen sings on the new album's "Easy Money," "There's nothing to it, mister, you won't hear a sound/When your whole world comes tumbling down/And all them fat cats they just think it's funny/I'm going on the town now looking for easy money," an obvious reference point is the down-on-his-luck dude looking for a quick score in Nebraska's "Atlantic City."
In "Shackled and Drawn," he sings "Up on Bankers Hill, the party's going strong/Down here below, we're shackled and drawn," in a voice that echoes all of the hungry and beaten people Tom Joad vowed to fight for. And anyone who owns a copy of Born in the U.S.A. or was around in 1984 or '85, when the Boss was the biggest star on the planet, knows where "Death to My Hometown" comes from.
Musically, though, Wrecking Ball recalls 2006's one-off We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, with its less-traditional rock instruments like violin, banjo, and trumpet included in the mix. There are also some hip-hop loops, giving the album a more immediate feel than the last couple of Springsteen LPs, 2007's Magic and 2009's Working on a Dream, which Brendan O'Brien bludgeoned with his sledgehammer production.
But for all this immediacy in theme and scope and musical checkpoints, the album's best song is one that was written a dozen years ago and pays tribute to the Impressions' 1965 classic "People Get Ready." "Land of Hope and Dreams" was originally written for and performed on Springsteen's 1999 reunion tour with the E Street Band, and in its slightly reworked Wrecking Ball version, you can hear a glimmer of hope amid all the confusion. You can also hear the late Clarence Clemons on saxophone, coming out of the shadows for one last go-round with the group.
When the band comes to the Q this week, it's going to look a little different than the last time it played here. Springsteen wisely isn't trying to fill Clemons' big shoes. Instead, a horn section and others will appear onstage with the E Street Band. But you can bet the show will play more like the final, optimistic part of Wrecking Ball than its angry, despairing parts. That's because Springsteen's concerts are all about celebration, even if there's not a whole lot of celebrating going on in the new songs.
Is it a great album — the classic that Rolling Stone's review implies? No. But it is Springsteen's best record since the post-9/11 The Rising, another work spurred by heartbreak and anger. This time, though, the helplessness feels timeless.