Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On Bruce Springsteen, his new album Wrecking Ball and... Kobe Bryant?

Wrecking Ball arrived somewhat surprisingly in my inbox on Sunday afternoon. Even after years of listening to, and thinking about music there is just something special about the experience of listening to a new Springsteen album for the first time. So while my son slept I took in the first Springsteen release since the abysmal 2009 release Working On A Dream hoping for an artistic return to form. Some 50 minutes later, I was slightly disappointed. 

As I drifted off to sleep later that evening I starting thinking about an analogy I had made several months ago. I was watching the 2011 NBA playoffs with a good friend of mine and as we were chatting during a time-out I began to think out loud, as I tend to do, and compared Bruce Springsteen to Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. After thinking about it for a few hours, I realized just how apt the comparison was. Its particularly fitting if you view Michael Jordan as the Bob Dylan of the NBA - with both figures being viewed the highest ideal of their professions and both bringing their medium into a new era (the NBA was never the same after Jordan, and its hard to argue against the notion that Dylan transformed Rock music in a similar fashion). Many Laker fans feel that Bryant has amassed a list of career accomplishments that should warrant the same widespread acclaim and acceptance that Jordan saw when he was in the twilight of his career, but even in a post-"decision" NBA Bryant remains one of the most controversial players in the league and is criticized by anyone from stat-gurus that detest his high volume shooting to casual fans in rival cities that view him as the devil incarnate. Like fans of Bryant, Most Springsteen fans would also assert that their idol should be considered an elite figure in his field, yet Springsteen continues to lack the same kind of critical consensus that Dylan enjoys. 
Most importantly, both Bruce Springsteen and Kobe Bryant have had their career's overshadowed by their idols, with Springsteen struggling under the "Next Bob Dylan" moniker and Bryant chasing the legacy of Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan. Rock critics compared Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan almost immediately. There are some similarities to be sure, and Springsteen has received a similar amount of critical acclaim, record sales (with Born in the USA selling far more than any album Dylan released) and rankings on lists ranging from "Best 100 Albums" to "Best Living Songwriter" (Paste Magazine published one worth reading a few months ago) as any of his peers, Dylan included. 
     Yet, like Bryant, praise for Springsteen has always been surrounded by prominent detractors. In Springsteen's case it seems than for whatever reason appreciation for his music seems to have skipped Generation X entirely. Its hardly surprising that a generation known for being cynical, callow and detached wouldn't have an affinity for the earnest, powerful and humanist qualities that have defined Springsteen's work since Born to Run. Still though, its only been since the critical zeitgeist has assumed a more Millenial sensibility that Springsteen has seen a resurgence of hipness as bands ranging from The National to Vampire Weekend to the Arcade Fire have cited him as an important influence. 
     I'll return to why I brought this analogy up in the first place: both Bryant and Springsteen are at the tail end of their iconoclastic careers. For Bryant, the first major sign of slippage I noticed was in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals when Bryant nearly shot his team out of the game - going 6-24 from the field and 0-6 from the 3 point line (that said, Bryant had a few amazing moments including grabbing 15 rebounds that helped keep the Lakers in that game). The Lakers won that Game 7 and the 2010 NBA championship, but unfortunately for Bryant's legacy that had a lot more to do with the Celtics losing their starting center to injury in Game 6 and Boston's inexplicably poor shooting in the 2nd half of Game 7. Those critical of Bryan'ts legacy were given more ammunition in 2011 when the Lakers lost unceremoniously in the Western Conference Semifinals, partly because of Bryant's selfish play. It was a performance awful enough that many commentators have all but written off the Los Angeles Lakers this NBA season. Honestly though, I wouldn't be surprised if Kobe led the Lakers back to the NBA Finals this year, because Kobe Bryant is such an incredible player - and I doubt I'm alone in that assertion. Its that sort of return to glory that I was hoping for Bruce this year. After 2009's embarrassing Working On A Dream, Wrecking Ball is an improvement, but it feels a lot like Bryant's 2010 game 7 -some flashes of brilliance, but ultimately unfulfilling - than a return to past form. 
           When Wrecking Ball is bad, it is bad. Most concerning to me is that it appears that Bruce might be losing his sharpness as a lyricist. I find myself missing the in depth narratives, the rich characters and the sense of place that has colored many of Springsteen's best songs. The lyrics on Wrecking Ball range from the prosaic, to the didactic, to the downright awful. Take this couplet on "Easy Money", for example:
"You put on your coat, I'll put on my hat. You put out the dog, I'll put out the cat." - Rhyming "hat" with "cat", sounds familiar, doesn't it?
"This Depression" may be the worst song Springsteen has written. Okay, maybe not, but it comes close. If the lyrics weren't bad enough the song is punctuated by a Tom Morello solo that sounds like it could have been on the demo for Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn". 
     The most controversial track among Springsteen fans appears to be "Rocky Ground", a gospel track built around loops and samples and featuring 16 bars of rapping.  Its as big of a missed opportunity as Springsteen has ever had in a career filled thats littered with them (never doing a proper MTV Unplugged, never releasing a proper follow up to Born in the USA, the tracklisting for The River, the list goes on and on). If Springsteen wanted to give the song an urban quality he should have recruited a legitimate hip hop artist to write and deliver these 16 bars of rap. Instead, he wrote the rap verse and gave it to backup singer Michelle Moore to deliver. The result is something that could not sound more awkward or contrived. Imagine if Bruce called up his friend Jimmy Fallon and borrowed The Roots instead. The result would have been Black Thought bringing his A-game and passe drum loops being replaced with Questlove's frenetic one of a kind drumming. "Rocky Ground" could have been the same kind of stellar midtempo jam as "Right On" from their 2010 classic "How I Got Over". The fact that singer Michele Moore plays such a prominent role on 3 of the songs on this LP is somewhat unfathomable to me. Quite frankly, she just lacks the intangible qualities that separate the great soul singers from simply adequate backup singers so her contributions on here are just laborious to listen to. Again, this is Bruce Springsteen, if he wanted to add that kind of texture he could have found an elite soul singer to work with. I'm not sure if he's losing his taste or he's just getting lazy.
     There are some moments of brilliance on Wrecking Ball, though. And those moments stand alongside the best moments of Springsteen's career. The title track, "Wrecking Ball" premiered in 2009 and was written for the late Giants stadium shortly before it was demolished. Some fans were upset when it was revealed that "Wrecking Ball" was not only on the new Springsteen LP, but that it was also the titular track because after all, it was just a song about a stadium. I have a different view, I feel that stadiums and arenas have attained an important place in our culture today. As we become more and more insular, physically speaking anyway, arenas have become one of the few places that people gather together under a common purpose. I think of Portland's own Rose Garden and everything that has transpired there over the past decade from concerts, to Brandon Roy's 4th quarter miracles, to Barack Obama receiving Bill Richardson's endorsement en route to becoming the first Black president.  Arenas have all but become our secular houses of worship. I'm sure that at this point in his life Bruce is starting to envision a time when the church of Springsteen is no longer. Where the 20,000 people that come to see him in cities around the world no longer have a place to gather together and celebrate his music and how it has shaped their lives. The gravity of this realization can be felt in the powerful chords of "Wrecking Ball" and it brought tears to my eyes after a few listens. 
     There are some really exhilarating moments on Wrecking Ball as well. The trio of "Easy Money", "Shackled and Drawn" and "Death to My Hometown" remind me of bands like The Pogues and the punk meets irish gig aesthetic of late period Joe Strummer songs like "Johnny Appleseed". "Jack of All Trades" is a mournful waltz set to a cold unfeeling drum sample that lyrically verges on self-parody until it takes a sinister turn at the end. "Land of Hope and Dreams" is one of the best Springsteen songs of the past 15 years and its nice to have it on an official release, particularly in this new arrangement (that gets derailed at the end by the aforementioned Michele Moore's contribution).   
Wrecking Ball is filled with references to the cyclical nature of life and history. In "Jack of All Trades" makes the observation that our current economic malaise has all "happened before, and it will happen again", in "Death to My Hometown" he cautions that the "robber barons" will return "just as sure as the rising sun and in "Wrecking Ball" he mentions that "hard times come, and hard times go, just to come again". Its my sense that with all of these observations, his use of folk music (using traditional folk instruments as well as archaic language and writing singable simplistic melodies) he seeks to cement the Guthrie -> Dylan -> Springsteen trajectory that many of his rock critic supporters have articulated. The thing is, it was never his lyrics or how his records sounded that made his talent comparable to Dylan's work. The real comparison was that like Dylan bringing folk music into a postmodern era - Springsteen fused the sounds of Phil Specter, Motown and Stax together and paired that sound, the treasured E Street sound, with lyrics with an implicit political consciousness and a distinctively punk ethos. Its a return to THAT Springsteen that fans have been pining for ever since the synth drenched pop of Born in the USA - and it might take a final revisiting of that sound to really cement Springsteen as a true peer of Bob Dylan. Not some flaccid re-airing of the folk music like his 2006 effort, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, and certainly not some half assed "experiment" with Gospel and Hip-Hop like "Rocky Ground". 
     So check out Wrecking Ball when it hits Spotify and expect to hear something worth your attention - but not anything close to Bruce Springsteen's best work. 


John Cieslik-Bridgen said...

Great, balanced review. It's often difficult to find much balance where Springsteen releases are concerned, as he tends to polarise opinion so sharply.

For me the stand out track is "Jack of all trades". Twice, the song feels fresh in terms of Springsteen's traditional production values (2'15" and 4'17") as first the horns and later the 'cello come in, and the results are beautiful. Especially with the 'cello leading into the disturbing last verse.

Overall the album is a patchy effort, and it does feel like Springsteen is well into the twighlight of his career. The only real hope I have of something stunning emerging in coming years is if he goes the route of Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond and enlists Rick Rubin for production duties. Now that would be something.

Blake On Wax said...

Thanks for the comment. I too would love to see Bruce work with Rick Rubin, either using a stripped down approach or something like Tom Petty's "Wildflowers".