Critics complaining about the lack of subtlety on the Boss' latest miss the point
Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball is a rap album. "Death to My Hometown" is punctuated by the sound of gunfire; "Jack of All Trades" features the Boss threatening to shoot up a few Wall Street types ("If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot them myself"). There's an icky sex jam called "You've Got It." The death of a close friend, Clarence Clemons, looms heavily over the entire thing. Along with some programmed drums and a ghostly vocal sample pulled from a decades-old recording, "Rocky Ground" actually features a rapped verse from gospel vocalist Michelle Moore.
Then, there is the mood of the album, which is aggressive and devoid of Springsteen's usual, wide-eyed empathy. Where he once made sensitive songs about authority figures like "Highway Patrolman," he now attempts his own violent variation on "Cop Killer" with "Jack of all Trades." On "Land of Hope and Dreams," he invokes Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," and the last time a white guy with a guitar did that, it was John Mayer's toxic, apathy anthem "Waiting on the World to Change." Give the guy a break.
And with the snark left over from last month's Lana Del Rey pile-on, cynical, even cruel, authenticity critiques are being lobbed at Springsteen's everyman persona. So, yeah, Springsteen's from New Jersey, yet he sings in an accent that's nebulously folksy, like a Hollywood studio player in a John Ford flick approximating an Okie. And as Armond White of City Arts observed, he's got a lot of money. But none of this means his songs can't address working-class issues. Springsteen is, like most rappers, a hybrid of fact and fiction, an ecstatic truth teller who taps into "the real" more effectively because he's half full of it. Speaking for the people is always a dicey proposition and it takes a mix of opportunism and courage to do it right.
Slate's Jody Rosen observed that protest music has changed and grown subtler ("Today’s best political art tries to do less, and accomplishes more"), and that's why Springsteen's latest feels out of touch. But Wrecking Ball's simplicity feels very much of the moment or perhaps, predictive of where we all need to be. This is not a time for gray areas. Liberals spent the 2000s trying to be reasonable and play the game. Conceding to terrorist scare-mongering nonsense, and bending over backwards to agree that yes, perhaps there are more pressing issues than gay marriage, so why rock the boat? 2011 was a year wasted with Obamas's nods to ridiculous, performative requests by the GOP.
Springsteen's perspective here seems to be that reasonable, bipartisan politics are a dead end. His album's title not only refers to the moving song in memory of Giants stadium, but in his newly discovered lack of subtlety. Even the lyrics seem messy, like they're off the dome. "We Take Care of Our Own," pretty much a "stop snitching" song, features the line, "the road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone," which totally mixes metaphors, but sounds pretty good, and nevertheless, serves up a simple, powerful image: We're all fucked!
Nowhere is that sense of hopelessness expressed better than on "Rocky Ground." The song begins with a sample from the Church of God in Christ Congregation's "I'm a Soldier in the Army of the Lord" that wouldn't sound out of place on a Gang Starr track, and reaches across generations, cleverly connecting gospel to rock to soul to hip-hop. The actual rap too, some brief bars of hopelessness (“You pray for guidance, only silence meets your prayers / The morning breaks, you're awake but no one's there”), flames frustration and provides catharsis, all at once. In Moore's delivery of Springsteen's words, lies the hope and perseverance that the lyrics deny.
Wrecking Ball is purposefully naive, like a pissed off corner kid (or Occupy Wall Street protester), who knows something is wrong, understands why its happening, and will work out the cogent argument part of the equation later on. These are big, dumb, destructive rock songs. And if we allowed political artists like Public Enemy or Common to be impassioned, poignant dolts and for say, Kanye West to half make sense but still drive the point home ("George Bush does not care about black people"), then there's no reason why Springsteen can't be seduced by pissed-off, agitprop. We need some of that right now.