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“Bring On Your Wrecking Ball” – Reconsidering Springsteen’s Last Album

October 7, 2013

Last week, I wrote about an idea that had been bouncing around my brain for over a year. I’m editing it a little bit and posting it over here because that’s the kind of thing I’d like to do more often – work out ideas on my Tumblr and then flesh them out a little more for this blog.

It feels right tonight because it’s the end of the first day of Bruce Springsteen coverage at One Week / One Band. Dave Bloom, a terrific writer of his own right, has been working for months to solicit, schedule, and edit a bunch of people tackling the evolution of Springsteen’s songs. I was thrilled when Dave invited me to participate (I have a couple posts on Friday), in part because it got me writing again, but also because it got me thinking deeply about songs I love. I’m guessing this is where my ideas about Wrecking Ball found themselves.

One of the things that hasn’t sat well with me since Wrecking Ball came out last year was how neatly everyone wrapped it up as “Springsteen’s Political Album” or “His Occupy Movement Record” It’s not that Wrecking Ball isn’t political or populist; these descriptors just fit too neatly. The articles and analyses focusing on how Springsteen’s songs dissected the 21st century recession felt incomplete even when well written, and it didn’t really make sense until I saw Springsteen perform last summer.

During the encore on an August night at Fenway Park, Springsteen introduced “We are Alive” as a song he wrote to tie up the themes and ideas in the Wrecking Ball album. He specifically cited the hard times of the past half decade and how they had him looking backward to other hard times in history, but the thing that stuck with me the most was how he spoke of the past. ”The voices of the dead are always speaking to the living,” he said, “if you listen hard enough.” One of the constants of the Wrecking Ball tour was the “roll call” segment appended to “My City of Ruin.” After giving every member of the band a moment in the spotlight, the lights illuminate two empty parts of the stage. Springsteen then calls out his departed bandmates and adds the mantra of the Wrecking Ball tour: “If you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here.” Since then, “We are Alive” gives me a little chill when I hear it, as I imagine the “voices of the dead” Springsteen describes aren’t the faceless ghosts a child might dream up in alone in a cemetery. Rather, these are the all too real voices of people who were once with us.

This connection made the rest of the album start to fall into place too. The defiance and anger that seemed entirely political felt like grieving. The searching and uncertainty in “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Rocky Ground” took on another dimension given the band’s uncertain status after losing Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons in a short span. “Death in My Hometown” took on a personal edge rather than a narrative direction.

Most significantly, it helped me understand how Springsteen pulled off the trick in “Wrecking Ball” where by the end of the song he wasn’t eulogizing Giants Stadium anymore. Originally written in 2009, the song begins like a celebration to athletic competition, complete with sports buzzwords that feel empty through repetition: “blood,” “champions,” “guts,” and “balls” in addition to slightly cleverer allusions to the stadium’s name, location, and primary tenant. In short, it sounds like the kind of thing played in a football stadium when football is listed on the ticket. Then, there’s this beautiful Aaron Copeland sounding melody that sneaks in long enough to distract me from missing the line that now leaps right off the page: “Tonight all the dead are here.” Springsteen might start by eulogizing the edifice itself, but by the end of the song he’s grappling with the inevitability of time. However, in true Springsteen fashion, this acknowledgment of mortality isn’t fatalistic, it’s empowering. The narrator goes from reflective to resolved, calling for us to “hold tight to our anger.” When he lays out the cycle of hardship in the last verse that awaits all of us, it’s more defiant than defeated. By the end, “bring on your wrecking ball” feels like a taunt rather than a toast. Coupled with the image of Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew and current E-Street saxophonist, standing with his fist raised during the song’s bridge, makes it clear that the ticking clock isn’t just the one in the stadium.

This urgency made all of Wrecking Ball more fascinating for me. It gives the political analysis that accompanied every review the right depth and shading. In his essential profile last spring, David Remnick noted that the dominant theme of the Wrecking Ball tour would be “time passing, age, death, and, if Springsteen could manage it, a sense of renewal.” This made what seemed like a late period footnote an essential introspective turn. It gave more of the album (to me at least) staying power, at least in the sense that I felt compelled to write this thirteen months after I probably should have sat down and done so.  Finally, it gives me hope that the August night I spent with the E-Street Band last summer won’t be the last time they come around.

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