It seems kind of goofy, at first, that the title Bruce Springsteen chose for his serious-as-your-life 17th studio album, which comes out Tuesday, is Wrecking Ball.
That's because it takes its name from a seemingly slight song that Springsteen wrote for his final, 2009 run of shows at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, shortly before the building was demolished.
On its face, the song "Wrecking Ball" appears to be a lighthearted lark. It's sung from the perspective of the aged gladiators' forum itself. (It was later performed during Springsteen's final 2009 shows at the Spectrum before that arena, too, was taken down.)
"Now my home's here in the Meadowlands, where mosquitoes grow big as airplanes," Springsteen sings with a mischievous grin, over an arrangement that starts with a strummed acoustic guitar, then grows grander as the protagonist welcomes the instrument of its destruction.
Wrecking Ball (Columbia ***) the album, on the other hand, is clearly no laughing matter. It's Springsteen weighing in on the Great Recession, working hard on behalf of those who have lost their livelihoods and had their faith shaken by economic forces outside their control.
The emphatic album opener "We Take Care of Our Own" takes the measure of an America that has reneged on what Springsteen views, in a favorite formulation, as its "promise" to look after all its citizens.
The pumped-up Irish jig "Death to My Hometown" finds the Boss excoriating corporate raiders as "greedy thieves who came around and ate the flesh of everything they found." (It takes Wall Street henchmen to task, and you can square dance to it.)
The weary soul ballad "Jack of All Trades," one of two tracks to feature Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello on lead guitar, despairs of a world where "the banker man grows fat, the working man grows thin / It's all happened before, and it'll happen again."
And "Rocky Ground," the album's most stunning track, is a spiritual lament in which Springsteen and producer Ron Aniello employ both a sample of a 1942 Alan Lomax field recording of the Church of God in Christ Congregation in Clarksdale, Miss., and a 16-bar mid-song rap by gospel singer Michelle Moore.
It works so seamlessly, and soulfully, that even hip-hop-hating Bruuuuucce fans will have a hard time finding fault with it - though many will undoubtedly start for the restrooms if Springsteen performs it when he plays the Wells Fargo Center with the E Street Band on March 28 and 29.
When you take those statements along with others, such as the existential and economic bummer "This Depression," a song about a sports stadium being razed might not seem to have enough gravitas to hold it all together.
There's more to "Wrecking Ball," however, than immediately meets the ear. And, oddly - considering it's sung in the voice of a football stadium - it turns out to be the album's best example of the sort of blood-stirring and defiantly hopeful songs that Springsteen has long been expert at.
It starts off with the story of an individual, and gathers force as it pulls together a community that can stand up to the fates. "C'mon and take your best shot, let me see what you got," the Boss sings, ready for a fight. "Bring on your wrecking ball."
As the music on "Wrecking Ball" grows more defiantly exuberant, with clap-along verses and Curt Ramm's trumpet swirling high up in the mix, the song becomes a celebration in the face of a cycle of hard times that come and go, "just to come again."
More than that, it takes into account age and mortality. Without dread, the 62-year-old Springsteen looks ahead to "when all this steel and these stories drift away to rust, and all our youth and beauty are given to the dust," and it doesn't shy away from another blow from the titular ball of iron.
"Wrecking Ball," then, turns out to be a worthy centerpiece to an album that gets three (rather than four) stars because of a merely workmanlike middle section. "Jack of All Trades" and "This Depression," in particular, fail to bring down-and-out protagonists as vividly to life as Springsteen has done before so masterfully on albums such as Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska.
Wrecking Ball is solidly built, with not a bad song in the bunch. It's short on great ones, however, and as such is a mild disappointment, especially since its subject matter, about struggle, strife, and stubborn faith, in an election year yet, is so perfectly in his wheelhouse.
In Springsteen's productive last decade, Wrecking Ball ranks clearly above 2009's Working on a Dream and slightly below 2007's underrated Magic and 2002's Sept. 11 statement The Rising. (I'd put the variously folkie We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006) and Devils & Dust (2005) below this one, too, in that order.)
The album often employs a familiar Springsteen strategy of marrying downcast lyrics to up-tempo music - which avoids driving the listener to tears with words that seem suitable for a dirge.
Cases in point would be the hollered-out country stomp "Shackled and Drawn," which equates freedom with the right to work, and "Easy Money," another rustic romp about a couple headed on a crime spree.
Wrecking Ball is neither as hard-rocking nor as experimental as it was hinted to be in advance press notices. It does move down surprising musical avenues, however.
"Rocky Ground" is one of several songs to use samples on the album, which credits Springsteen with "vocals, guitar, banjo, piano, organ, drums, percussion and loops."
It's by no means a full-blown E Street album, with the most work among the band members going to violin player Soozie Tyrell and, tellingly, keyboard player Charles Giordano. He was the Seeger Sessions musical director and replaced the late Danny Federici in the E Street Band after his death in 2008. There are also many outside players, including Morello, drummers Matt Chamberlain and Steve Jordan, and ace string player Greg Leisz.
Yes, the late saxophone player Clarence Clemons - to be replaced on the tour by a five-man horn section, including his nephew Jake - plays on two songs on the album. The liner notes also include an excerpt from the eulogy Springsteen gave at Clemons' funeral last year. "Clarence doesn't leave the E Street Band when he dies," it read. "He leaves when we die."
That notion that the dead are still with us, long after they've departed this mortal coil, is what animates "We Are Alive," which brings Wrecking Ball to a strong finish. (If you buy it on vinyl, side two is the one you'll keep going back to.)
The song gives gentle voice to the departed, whether they be civil rights workers in the 1960s or Mexicans who died attempting to cross over to the "Land of Hope and Dreams" of the previous song.
"Our souls and spirits rise," Springsteen sings, as his folkie guitar is lifted by the melody of the Johnny Cash hit "Ring of Fire." It ends Wrecking Ball on a prayerful note, with a beautiful Springsteenian idea: That even after we're gone, we're all in this together.