Proof that even a celebrity rocker can come up with responsible notes of dissent.
Rocking still in the time of robber barons, Bruce Springsteen's latest album is about the death of dreams. It approaches the theme of loss and betrayal of an ideal from different musical directions that is, in many ways, reminiscent of ‘Born in the USA', both in terms of exploration of new sounds and its ultimate belief in hope.
But, befitting a time of corporate betrayal of the American Dream, the album is explicitly far more political than the earlier one was. “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” goes the lyrics of Shackled and Drawn, a sentiment that echoes repeatedly in many other songs.
Yet, the ones that make the most impact in this album are those in which the larger social tragedy is felt indirectly, through the personal, in songs like This Depression. Springsteen is at his best as a balladeer of personal narratives of loss, where a personal predicament, often tragic, alerts one to a larger social malaise (think Cover me, Dancing in the Dark, No Surrender, Downbound Train and so many more), felt all the more keenly because one is made to seek the connection out.
When he gets explicitly polemical, as he does repeatedly in this album, he sounds a little naive. Compare My hometown (‘Born in the USA', 1984) a song about racial tensions and economic hardship as a result of industries shutting down with Death to my Home Town to feel the difference. Some of the least convincing numbers are those that resort to Christian imagery in songs like Rocky Ground (where rap rather self-consciously meets gospel).
Still, there are enough take-away numbers in this album like This Depression, You've Got It, Jack of all Trades and Shackled and Drawn. Proof that even a celebrity rocker can still come up with responsible notes of dissent. And, in the end, intentions do matter. Look at it this way: At 63, Springsteen could well have settled for a greatest hits album, having done more than enough to justify such decades-embracing backward glance. Worse, he could have lent his iconic hits of the past to a bank commercial, letting convictions go with the wind or tried his hand at yet another lingerie ad as ageing 60-plus-year-old rock stars are sometimes prone to do even if clothed as a post-modernist prank.
Yet, the effort to look ahead, to move on, to ground his music and lyrics in the here and now, in the explicitly political — even if done a little naively at times — to risk it all again is deserving of one's admiration and, perhaps, one's money too.
Wrecking Ball; Bruce Springsteen, March 2012, Sony Music