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‘Wrecking Ball,’ an indictment of our times

If you’ve just returned from spending years cross-legged on a mountain top in Tibet, I’ll reiterate why this column is called “Random Shuffle” and why it often seems like a scattered exercise in self-indulgence.

“Random Shuffle” comes from the setting on an iPod that mixes up all the music stored there and then plays it in no particular order. So, for instance, The Five Satins “In the Still of the Night” will be followed with “Exogenesis: Symphony Part III (Redemption)” by Muse, with the next cut being “Gotta Have It” by Jay-Z and Kanye West and then onto the Rolling Stones excellent cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” (which happened as I wrote this). It keeps life interesting and there’s no way of knowing what comes next.

In the three years since I was granted this space, I’ve tried to reflect that random approach to the content here, occasionally adding in stories about my family, my views on life, love and politics, spouting off about something to release the bee in my bonnet but mainly writing about music.

When writing about music, it’s usually in general terms of life: Maybe talking about how an artist influenced me to be the person who writes here today or how an artist captures, for me, a particular place in time. From time-to-time I list releases that I’d like to share with my readers and sometimes I release the snark in response to truly wretched music. However, unlike many music writers, I rarely review a new release. In well over 100 columns published over the past few years, I can count on one hand the reviews of new releases that I’ve done, keeping a few fingers free to grasp other things.

Frankly, I don’t have much confidence in myself as a reviewer, afraid I’ll darken the page with hyperbole or (worse yet) cliché.

I say all this as I prepare to spend a few hundred more words on reviewing Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball.”

Before stumbling through my thoughts on the album (“album” seeming quaint in this day and age of digital downloads, bringing to mind vinyl stuffed into a square foot of colored cardboard), I’ll provide a spoiler and spare you the rest of my blather: It’s Bruce’s best album since — well, that’s a difficult comparison to make since he’s made so many great albums, many of them outstanding in their own way. By no means a “Born to Run” or “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” I will nonetheless state that “Wrecking Ball” will be, without a doubt, a soundtrack for not just my spring and summer but my entire year.  

In short, if you’re only going to buy one album this year (as alien to me as saying, “If you’re only going to eat one meal this year ...”), this is probably the one.

Now, to be abundantly clear as to why I’m reluctant to review new releases, I’ll begin by saying that psychologists and educators say that learners have different styles for mastering material, the three most commonly referred to being visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Really, I don’t know what my learning style is; it’s never occurred to me to think about it or make any adaptations to maximize my comprehension.

One thing I do know is that, when it comes to music, it’s the sound that grabs me first. If the sound of a song hasn’t captured my interest, I’m probably not going to bother with the lyrics. In fact, it usually takes me a few listenings before I even bother with trying to decipher the words.

Odd that, considering some people think of me as a writer, I’d make words incidental to the melody. The tune always distracts me from the words, there’s no two ways about it.

In short, it takes me some time before I get around to listening to the lyrics. However, the joy of that is getting to unwrap a new dimension of a song or an artist, digging in past the melody to immerse myself in what the artist is trying to say.

Given that, my first few stabs at hearing “Wrecking Ball” was a purely sonic experience, one that continues to thrill. While the Wall of Sound is back, much like it was with “Born to Run,” it is a sound that is updated and indeed experimental, a surprise in the way Wilco fans found “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” following the much rootsier and traditional “Summerteeth.”

Although Springsteen is sure to please Classic Rock fans with songs like the Celtic stompers like “Shackled and Drawn” and “Death to My Hometown,” samples, loops and other “modern” recording techniques give the title cut, along with songs such as “This Depression,” “Rocky Ground” and “We Take Care of Our Own,” a twist that would not make those songs out of place on Indie/College radio.

The result is a manic, exciting ride, with parts of “Wrecking Ball” keeping a restrained foot off the accelerator but then pushing the tachometer past the red line as the stick is pressed into overdrive (to use metaphors Springsteen would appreciate).

As I said, my initial approach to the album was entirely about the sounds and to those ends, I was more than satisfied. At times reminded of songs from greats like “Born to Run,” “Nebraska,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and even “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle,” there was also so much new and different that I felt as I did in the mid-’70s when Springsteen first entered my music collection to take a rightfully prominent place among The Gods.

Ready to consume the lyrics, it was immediately apparent that “Wrecking Ball” is Springsteen at his angriest, expressing an unsettling angst with the country’s current state of affairs.

Yes, he has travelled these roads before, many times, but in his previous ire he always left the listener with a sense of hope, believing that we would eventually overcome the forces determined to hold us down. As bleak as much of Springsteen’s previous work might have been, it was always accompanied by a faith that our better angels, sustained in a faith in honor and righteousness, would succeed in bringing up all the boats with the rising tide.

That bright hope is lacking in “Wrecking Ball,” with small, factory towns razed to their foundations, the residents scratching out a bleak existence in the service of corporate profits.

Springsteen rages from the start with “We Take Care of Our Own,” not ironically calling into question the phony patriotism of the Bush administration (and his right wing apologists) with, “From Chicago to New Orleans/From the muscle to the bone/From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/

We yelled “help” but the cavalry stayed home/There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown/We take care of our own/We take care of our own/Wherever this flag’s flown /We take care of our own.”

Released in an election year, “Wrecking Ball” is nonetheless apolitical, taking a “Pox on both houses” approach, disenchanted by either party’s inability to make this country work for all its citizens. Seeing both parties bought and paid for by the moneyed elite, Springsteen hammers on, in song after song, what he perceives as a full-blown assault on the American dream.

“The banker man grows fatter/The working man grows thin/It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again,” Springsteen sings in “Jack of All Trades,” and, expressing the rage of a man defeated by circumstances and impotent of choices, finishes with, “You learn to make do/You take you make it new

If I had me a gun/I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.”

Whereas “My Hometown” (from “Born in the U.S.A.) described a factory town in decline, the song ends with Springsteen’s declaration that things will turn around and that, ultimately, he won’t be going anywhere.

That hope is lost in “Death to My Hometown,” a song that Pagosa First should be singing: “Now get yourself a song to sing and sing it ’til you’re done/Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well/Send the robber baron’s straight to hell/The greedy thieves that came around/And ate the flesh of everything they’ve found/Whose crimes have gone unpunished now/Walk the streets as free men now/And they brought death to our hometown.”

Throughout “Wrecking Ball,” Springsteen rails against a system that has become so perverse, corrupt and unjust, it has ceased to resemble the America he was raised in.

“A gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills/It’s still fat and easy up on bankers hill/Up on bankers hill the party is still going strong/Down here below we’re still shackled and drawn,” Springsteen sings, again pointing out that the game has been fixed, favoring the privileged few while continuing to impoverish the rest of us.

It’s difficult to fault Springsteen’s pessimism or jaundiced eye, especially as our tax dollars continue to prop up Too Big To Fail banks that, having awarded themselves billions in bonuses for creating the worst economic situation since the Great Depression, continue to use that largesse to throw people out of their homes and steal from everyone and anyone they can.

The bleak attitude in “Wrecking Ball” asks an important question about the institutional rot of the American soul: If failure at the highest level of society is rewarded, with dishonesty, venality, incompetence and utter stupidity paying dividends while playing by the rules is a sucker’s ploy, where’s the incentive to pursue the American dream on moral or ethical terms? If Too Big To Fail exists, time and again, what provides the impetus to succeed?

Springsteen is clear in “Wrecking Ball” that the titans of Wall Street will never grow a pair large enough to admit to wrecking the economy, much less confess their crimes or concede that the rules that they play by are designed to keep them reliant on our tax dollars as they continue to scheme, in every way possible, to rip off the rest of us — and, most venally, the least of us.

“If I had me a gun/I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.” Indeed, I’m with you brother. While the soulless idiots at Fox News howl and fling feces like caged apes over a welfare recipient spending a few dollars on a jug of wine, they’re laughably silent about the trillions of dollars continually zapping life into the zombie banks that, as you read this, continue looting taxpayers, depositors, shareholders and anyone else they identify as an easy mark.

In the end, “Wrecking Ball” is about a lack of faith in how the system has worked, growling unequivocally that perhaps a new faith is necessary to restore the integrity of the American soul. If that new faith involves, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” it is a prayer that seems to be growing in resonance with the 99 percent who, for all intents and purposes, find the message of “Wrecking Ball” as an indictment of our times — and what our country has become.

jim@pagosasun.com

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