What separates the great musicians from yesteryear from the true icons and legends? It's the fact that you can put on nearly any of their albums and they will cut a swath across time and space that will leave you as amazed as when the album was first dropped. Consider the waves of teenagers every year who put on Revolver
or London Calling
or Highway 61 Revisited
and have their little pubescent minds blown by music that was being made possibly before their parents were even born. The greatest albums and the greatest artists become milestones of our popular conscious that transcend both the environments that birthed them and the audiences who first had the pleasure of basking in their brilliance.
What happens though when these artists who have captured the imagination and hearts of listeners for decades try to milk their talents for every last drop of cash and exposure? Exile on Mainstreet
will live forever, but in ten years, no one will remember A Bigger Bang
, and Joshua Tree
was an anthemic calling card for generations but No Line on the Horizon
seemed like U2 was marching in place. At a certain point in your career, you have to admit that you're out of good ideas. There are only two artists in the American songbook that have managed to "keep on keeping on" for more than three decades. The first is the great American poet, Bob Dylan, whose debut album released 50 years ago today and whose 32nd studio album (2006's Modern Times
) is still considered one of his greatest accomplishments. The last is, of course, "the Boss." Bruce Springsteen
just released his 17th studio album, Wrecking Ball
, and it is with complete sincerity that we say that the Boss is only getting better with age.
If an artist has ever defined American music in the post-Vietnam world, it's Bruce Springsteen. Just when the world was tiring of folk-music (until our hunger would re-awaken twenty years later), Bruce arrived on the scene with Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.
in 1973 combining his poetry of American with roots rock, and he hasn't looked back since. Not content to just release the same record year after year, Springsteen has dabbled in intentional lo-fi (before it was popular) on Nebraska
, synthesizers and pop along with the heartland rock on Born in the U.S.A.
, Phil Spector-style "walls of sound" on Born to Run
, and an increasingly introspective and mature voice as he's gotten older. Wrecking Ball
doesn't break any new ground for the Boss on the musical front (though it still manages to seem fresh), but Bruce's anger and sense of betrayal at the economic injustice wrecking our country makes this perhaps Springsteen's most passionate and important album lyrically yet.
This salvo from album stand-out "Shackled and Drawn" sums up Bruce's mission statement in a nutshell.
"Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bill / It's still fat and easy up on banker's hill / Up on banker's hill the party's going strong / Down here below we're shackled and drawn"
Taking aim squarely at the men (politicians, bankers, Wall Street executives, etc) that Bruce blames for the worst economic threat our nation has faced since the Depression, Wrecking Ball
is the protest album of the decade. Not since the anti-war indictments of the 60s and 70s have songs carried this much political weight. "Easy Money" could be the modern answer to Creedence Clearwater Revival's classic "Fortunate Son," and this declaration of near hopelessness from "Death to My Hometown" captures the national mood better than any song in decades.
"Well, no cannonballs did fly, no rifles cut us down/ No bombs fell from the sky, no blood soaked the ground/ No powder flash blinded the eye, no deathly thunder sounded/ But just as sure as the hand of God, they brought death to my hometown/ They brought death to my hometown, boys"
It's true that Bruce sticks pretty close to his established wheelhouse musically (which has caused much of the divisive nature of the album's reviews), but considering the recent revival of rootsy Americana rock taking over the musical world, Bruce simply reminds us that no one does this type of music better than him. The E Street band makes sporadic appearances (even the late Clarence Clemons whose unmistakable sax shows up on two tracks to break our hearts one last time), but this is almost entirely a "Bruce Springsteen" production through and through. Many have bristled at Bruce's unwillingness to make bold leaps in terms of musical direction, but considering the album's attempts to bridge the gap between the political protest music of the 60s and today, his decision to embrace his folksy roots can not be seen as unwise.
In a day when popular mainstream music comes off of major label assembly lines ready for mass consumption, Bruce's ability to still differentiate himself from the pack after 40 years in the business and craft music that truly means something is perhaps this album's most defining feature. Even punk, the consistent political voice of music, has lost its edge over the years, and Bruce's outspoken passions (and poetic lyricism to match these call to arms) remain a source of hope that music can make a difference in the world. Wrecking Ball
has the potential to be the political rallying cry of the year.