The New York Times 's pop critics Jon Pareles and Jon Caramanica discuss Bruce Springsteen's album Wrecking Ball .
___JON PARELES Jon, if good intentions were all that mattered, Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball would be album of the year. Wrecking Ball is Springsteen's latest manifesto in support of the workingman, and his direct attack at fat cats (1) and bankers who derailed (2) the economy. It's sincere, ambitious and angry, which can lead to mixed results. It also has some of Springsteen's most elaborate studio concoctions since Born to Run .
The album has been growing on me (3) with each play; by the end it moves from duty (4) to pleasure. Springsteen definitely picked the right title song, Wrecking Ball , written from the first-person point of view of the old Giants Stadium. But he was less strategic making We Take Care of Our Own the first single. In my imagination he was watching that Republican debate when someone in the audience cheered the idea of letting the uninsured die, and he felt his sense of duty; he thought he should write a song that insists compassion is patriotic. It's a trademark E Street Band sound. I don't think, as you wrote, that it's "jingoistic," only that it tries to associate flag-waving nationalism with shared responsibility. But there's much better stuff on the album.
___But, Jon, I too was born in the U.S.A., a country with a Constitution that guarantees the freedom of interpretation! We can talk about the intention of the author all day long -but the text is far more ambiguous, and in plenty of places on this album, just outright flat (5) .
I agree, it's energizing to hear the type of ambitious arrangements that he'd largely abandoned when he retreated into rural bard mode.
But that energy is in service of deeply nebulous ideas. Even if I accept that Bruce is moving in the Pete Seeger tradition, there's no ambiguity in Seeger's vision, political or aesthetic. Bruce keeps it loose, though. Take out (6) the couple of post-Katrina references in that song, and what 's left (7) is a tirade (8) about locating American identity outside of government authority.
But no, fans will say: He takes on (9) the big-money guys all over this album (though not the ones that financed and built Giants Stadium), but those lyrics feel more crudely drawn than 1970s Saturday morning cartoon villains.
___PARELES What do you want from him, a tax plan? That points to the problem that only Springsteen has (except for Neil Young). He's the superstar who is supposed to be impeccably pure of heart and commerce, absolutely serious in his roles as the tribune of the working man and the voice of the ( crumbling (10) ) American dream but still a rock 'n' roll entertainer.
So he's in trouble if he gets too serious, in trouble if he leaves a hole in a lyric, in trouble if he's too bleak (11) or didactic.
But Springsteen has willingly and self-consciously shouldered that role, and has done it far differently from Pete Seeger, the folkie who proudly distrusts commercial pop. Springsteen is doing it as someone who wants to make fully produced recordings and get them heard on the radio, who sells out arenas and is not just populist but still genuinely popular. Face (12) it -Lady Gaga doesn't want to be Pete Seeger.
On Wrecking Ball he's trying to define a God-and-country liberalism, a gospel of hard, sweaty work and earned income, while venting direct fury at vulture (13) capitalists. He also comes out pro-immigrant, openly romantic and reverent to the point of direct Bible allusions.
The music lifts this album out of its hard-times gloom (14) , and goes all over the place: roots Americana, electric guitars, synthesizers, orchestra.
___CARAMANICA I would like the title of the next Springsteen album to be his effective tax rate (15) .
But when he does get specific on this album, it's disorienting. If you believe We Are Alive , then striking 1877 Maryland railroad workers rest alongside Birmingham civil rights agitators and also next to Mexican border crossers. One cause at a time, please. And when Springsteen intones, "I'll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain" in Jack of All Trades , the workingman empathy literally made me nauseous.
One of the high points on this album for me is You've Got It. It's Bruce at his prime sexiness, that heavy-breathing oratory of his not aimed at the laborers and the overlords but at a tender young thing. "You've got it in your bones and blood/You're real as real ever was," he says, the hot air leaving a damp coat of lust (16) on his target's ear. He sounds predatory, lecherous. It's bracing (17) .
That's the Springsteen I find most provocative, the one who balances sensuality with dogma, who understands the body as a locus of pleasure, not just labor. When the music is joyous on this album, it does what his words and voice often cannot: generates goodwill (18) .
___PARELES You've definitely zeroed in on some of the weak spots. Yes, Jack of All Trades verges on self-parody.
One odd (19) thing Springsteen does on this album is to all but set aside (20) one of his major skills: storytelling through a single character or two. Giants Stadium and the guy in You've Got It end up being the album's most three-dimensional characters.
It's as if Springsteen decided to merge Woody Guthrie and gospel, all archetypes and declarations. Which means the lyric booklet isn't the place to start. If you read Shackled and Drawn or Rocky Ground , you think they're going to be a chore. But Shackled and Drawn genuinely shakes its fist (21) and howls (22) , while Rocky Ground -even with an unnecessary rap included- ends up redemptive.
There's been a lot of triumphal, fanfaring rock and hip-hop around. Just for a change it's encouraging to hear a big sound that's linked not to individual aggrandizement or indulgence, but to something more unselfish.
___CARAMANICA And yet this possibly unselfish or maybe even generous album, and artist, inspires so much self-righteousness (23) . I'd say take me back to his album Nebraska .
You're totally right about the lack of characters here. He's losing definition in his voice, but in ways that are less interesting than Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Tom Waits. He's picking obvious targets, painting them with wide brushes, then taking cannon shots that can't miss.
___PARELES In the end I don't think we're all that far apart on this album. Though I like it better than Magic or Working on a Dream , I'm not comparing it with his first seven albums -or The Rising . It's got plenty of ups and downs.
Springsteen has been listening to arenas singing along for three decades. It's an act of will for him to still search for musical and verbal nuance while staying terse, to not be condescending or demagogic, to say what he considers important, knowing how loud it's going to be. Sure, he's firing a cannon this time. At least he's firing it in the right direction.
1. fat cat: peix gros
2. to derail: descarrilar
3. to grow (something) on someone: agradar cada vegada més
4. duty: deure
5. outright flat: totalment pla
6. to take out: treure
7. to be left: quedar
8. tirade: diatriba
9. to take on: enfrontar-se a
10. crumbling: que s'enfonsa
11. bleak : depriment
12. to face: admetre
13. volture: voltor
14. hard-times gloom: pessimisme de temps difícils
15. tax rate: taxa impositiva
16. lust: luxúria
17. bracing : fresc
18. goodwill: bona voluntat
19. odd: estrany
20. to set aside: deixar de banda
21. to shake one's fist: agitar el puny
22. to howl: udolar
23. self-righteousness: pretensió de superioritat moral
Find the following words in the glossary.
2. rich man
3. large bird
4. accept it
6. strong sexual desire
7. a person's hand with fingers closed
Complete these sentences adapted from the text with the correct preposition.
1. I didn't like the album at first but in the end it grew _______ me .
2. Springsteen takes _______ the rich bankers on this album.
3. The opinions of the two journalists aren't so far _______ (from each other).
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