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Music review: Bruce Springsteen, 'Wrecking Ball'

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Bruce Springsteen, "Wrecking Ball" (Columbia) 2 and a half stars

brucewreckcd.jpgWoody Guthrie idolized Jesus Christ, but Woody could do without preachers. Holed up in a New York City flophouse in 1940, he penned his two greatest songs, each inspired by this point of view. "Jesus Christ Was a Man" depicted the Christian namesake as a worker "true and brave" who championed the rights of the common people and was betrayed by the political elite. "This Land Is Your Land" was Woody's reaction to another song that bugged him to death, Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." As Joe Klein wrote in Woody Guthrie: A Life, Woody saw Berlin's narcotic standard as "just another of those songs that told people not to worry, that God was in the driver's seat." Regardless of one's religious beliefs, Woody simply reasoned that such sentiments encouraged passivity in the here and now. Woody believed God had already blessed America -- made it for you and me -- and that it's our duty to use our God-given talents to do the work necessary to maintain that blessing and live up to its gift.

Bruce Springsteen is often connected in the culture to Woody's working-man spirit; no doubt he'll be involved in the some of the events this year celebrating the centennial of Woody's birth. The swell of Occupy Wall Street protests and their seeming lack of new music thus ratcheted up some anticipation of Springsteen's latest record, "Wrecking Ball," his 17th studio album (out Tuesday but currently being released online song-by-song, day-by-day). He's written some lyrics that address and allude to the country's recent financial crises and social inequities, but "Wrecking Ball" is a conflicted creation. In the end, Springsteen, now 62, merely falls to his knees and and calls on "a shepherd" to come sort it all out.

Springsteen doesn't write fiery protest songs. He relates conversations, repeats monologues, thinks aloud. It's an effective tactic because it speaks with us, possibly for us, but rarely down to us. It certainly works in the opener, the single "We Take Care of Our Own," a basic "Badlands"-style stomper and an ironic rallying cry. One can predict another "Born in the U.S.A." moment here at some political rally, where a politician blares the song as he steps to the podium having only heard the deceptively reassuring, patriotic chorus instead of the antithetical lines underneath ("There ain't no help / the cavalry stayed home"). We can't rely on outside aid, he's saying; we've gotta watch out for each other.

The front end of the album steams ahead with similar sentiment. "Them fat cats," he sneers in the desperate "Easy Money." Around nearly every early verse, Springsteen -- a 1 percenter who's not exactly charging $5 a ticket for his shows and is nicknamed, perhaps troubling in this particular context, the Boss -- pokes at rich people and those who guard their sums. "The banker man grows fat / Working man grows thin," he observes in "Jack of All Trades," and that's after noting, "Up on Banker's Hill, the party's still going strong / Down here below we're shackled and drawn." In "Death to My Hometown," he laments the quiet destruction of Main Street America, reciting an anti-corporate party line: "I never heard a sound / The marauders raided in the dark / and brought death to my hometown."

Near the end of that one, though, Springsteen makes his call -- a call for a real protest song, singing:

Now get yourself a song to sing
and sing it 'til you're done
Sing it hard, and sing it well
Send the robber barons straight to hell!
The greedy thieves who came around
and ate the flesh of everything they found
whose crimes have gone unpunished now
who walk the streets as free men now

The songs on "Wrecking Ball" might not be those songs, but perhaps the moment will focus their messages and help spread the values of a movement still finding its legs. Most of these lyrics were written well before protestors occupied public spaces around the world, and none of them are unusual stand-outs above his countless other trodden-upon characters and snapshots of America's economic dark side. What has changed is that one or two of these characters wear ties -- a first, Springsteen recently admitted to Rolling Stone. That's been the minor miracle of Occupy Wall Street: the realization by American wage slaves that they are justified in taking to the streets, too, that coveralls and khakis are welcome in the marches, that we all have defiant songs to sing, and loudly.

Springsteen clearly sympathizes with Occupy, the 99 percent, whatever we're calling them this week, but he just as clearly wants to keep a little distance. For example, he masks himself with some odd accents for a few songs. "Death to My Hometown" is delivered in an Irish brogue that matches the tune's lively Celtic instrumentation. On the title track, a transcendent eulogy written in 2009 upon the destruction of Giants Stadium, Springsteen sings about being "raised in the swamps of Jersey" but chews a dialect that's pure southeast Oklahoma.

Musically, the album's satisfying, if not superb. Producer Ron Aniello fills in the spaces of these songs, which allegedly began life as "Nebraska"-style acoustic folk, with light electronic beats and plenty of guest support without overburdening anything. Assistance includes sporadic input from a few E Street Band members, including the final sax solos from the late Clarence Clemons (on "Land of Hope and Dreams" and "Wrecking Ball"). Libertyville's Tom Morello contributes thoughtful electric guitar to, unfortunately, a couple of the album's less powerful statements, "Jack of All Trades" and "This Depression" (a meditation on mentality, not economics).

Springsteen ends the album by letting even higher voices speak on his behalf. The Bruce-by-numbers "Land of Hope and Dreams," a E Street-wide epic he's been toying with for more than a decade, quotes Curtis Mayfield in between train rides and assurances that "faith will be rewarded." The whistled, trumpeted "Ring of Fire"-like impressions underneath "We Are Alive" mix up the struggles of railroad workers, Civil Rights marchers and illegal aliens with "a cross up yonder on Calvary Hill" and further promises that "our souls and spirits rise." "Rocky Ground," in particular, features a looped sample (someone shouting, "I'm a soldier!") and gospel singer Michelle Moore cooing the song's hook and then -- people get ready -- rapping the refrain. Springsteen, meanwhile, encapsulates his parting thoughts within a barrage of biblical language, from flocks and shepherds and 40 days and Canaan to more vague platitudes like "a new day is rising" and "a new day's coming." "Pray ... that your best is good enough," Springsteen now advises. "The Lord will do the rest."

Somewhere, hopefully, there's a young, new Woody Guthrie out there, listening to this album and scribbling, scribbling.


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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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