Yes! The Boss has a new album out, and it’s his angriest yet! Actually it’s been out for a couple of weeks now – I was listening to it as I was going up country a fortnight ago for Lib Dem Spring Conference in Gateshead. I’m a massive Springsteen fan, and so for that matter are many of my fellow liberals (although by no means all).
The anger is definitely what strikes you at first, like an Occupy chant set to music (although less monotonously repetitive), and it’s not synthetic. The first song, the powerful ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, sets the pace: “Where’s the hearts that run over with mercy?” Springsteen asks rhetorically in a song as packed full of ironic patriotism as ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ Springsteen gives voice to the ordinary people ‘shackled and drawn’ by the recession, angrily commenting that ‘gambling man rolls the dice, workingman pays the bill’, and in ‘Death To Our Hometown’ he compares the ravages of globalisation on working-class Americans to an invading army, a second War of 1812. Even more expressive, if chilling, is the assertion of the meditative narrator of ‘Jack of All Trades’, after looking forward to a better future, that ‘if I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight’, an expression of the fact that economic injustice can only breed anger, even psychosis, and eventually terrible violence. It could have been written with Gabrielle Giffords in mind.
But what struck me after this was the religious overtone. The eponymous jack-of-all-trades hopes that men might grow to truly love each other, like Jesus commanded; later, in ‘Rocky Ground’, Springsteen sings about Christ’s expulsion of the money-changers from the temple. To me, it is even recognisably Catholic in places, such as in ‘This Depression’, where it is ambiguous whether he is addressing his ‘confession’ to his beloved or to God. Springsteen was brought up a Catholic, and although I don’t think he’s practicing or perhaps even a believer I’m sure he understands the little things, like the fact that hard times would bring a man back to the confessional. Even Mass-going Catholics these days are notoriously shy of going to confession, precisely because it works through the mediation of a priest and so forces you to really look at your life before God and admit your limitations – exactly what this man is forced to do, indeed needs to do.
Of course, this isn’t new. The Rising and Magic both contain plenty of identifiably Christian references – ‘Our City of Ruins’ is similar in theme to ‘This Depression’, and ‘I’ll Work For Your Love’ is both a touching love song and a hymn to Catholic devotion. And I’m not the first person to notice this (kudos to the commenters who suggested ‘My Rometown’ and ‘Humanae Vitae Touch’ as Alternative Catholic Springsteen titles, by the way). But the whole of ‘Wrecking Ball’ is, either consciously or unconsciously, modelled on something far less superficial than simply throwing in a few references; nothing less ambitious than the books of prophecy of the Old Testament. When people talk about social justice in the Bible, they’re often thinking about Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount (and more often than not what they imagine Jesus said), but there’s plenty of righteous anger on behalf of the poor and downtrodden from the Jewish prophets. For a good example, have a quick read of the Book of Micah. Don’t worry it’s short; that’s why you’ve never heard of it.
The album begins with righteous anger. Springsteen points to the men and women abandoned by Bush and FEMA to drown in New Orleans in the face of Hurricaine Katrina, and lambasts the general lack of compassion and injustice in America; this segues into ‘Easy Money’, which tells the story of a man and his girl going out with their Smith & Wesson looking to get rich quick, and how this just amuses the fatcats; perhaps they are aware of the fact that their petty criminality is dwarfed by the greater crimes perpetrated by the wealthy and powerful. So does Micah, in damning the inequities of Israel, draw the equivalence between high and low iniquities by complaining that Israel was built on the wages of prostitutes (1:7). ‘Shackled and Drawn’, ‘Jack of All Trades’, and ‘Death to My Hometown’ continue this complaint of oppression by the powerful and wealthy, in words that match Micah’s but are, despite Springsteen’s songwriting abilities, not as powerful:
11 Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales,
with a bag of false weights?
12 Your rich people are violent;
your inhabitants are liars
and their tongues speak deceitfully.
The next few songs on the album, however, signal a shift towards a different part of the prophecy narrative. ‘This Depression’ is a powerful plea of help to the Almighty. It is followed by ‘You’ve Got It’, the odd one out in that it is the only conventional love song on the album, but after that comes ‘Rocky Ground’, which, as well as condemning present injustices, looks forward to a better future, imploring the ‘shepherd’ to look after his flock and fulfil his promises.
Finally, there comes the last two songs of the album proper (‘Swallowed Up (In The Belly of the Whale)’ and ‘American Land’ are bonus tracks, although the title of the penultimate track is an obvious hint to another biblical prophet of justice, Jonah). ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ offers a compelling vision of the future: men and women providing for one another, travelling together on an American train journey for the rest of time (I can attest that travelling on the American train network certainly feels like you’re travelling for eternity). ‘Big wheels roll through fields/Where sunlight streams’ Springsteen croons, ‘Meet me in a land of hope and dreams.’ This is a visionary, frankly apocalyptic (in the best sense) description. Again, Micah offers a similar prediction:
3 He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
4 Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the LORD Almighty has spoken.
5 All the nations may walk
in the name of their gods,
but we will walk in the name of the LORD
our God for ever and ever.
Yet Springsteen’s passengers are a diverse bunch, including ‘saints and sinners’, ‘whores and gamblers’, losers and winners, even the damned. The American experience includes all these men and women, for good or ill – in a throwback to an otherwise unmissed Eighties Springsteen, ‘we’re all riders on this train’. The difference is that, for all their flaws, these men and women can live together without harming one another, whereas Micah forsees nothing but destruction for the wicked (5:10-15). Crucially, there is no divine ticketmaster; only ‘bells of freedom ringing’. Then again, from my experience travellers on American trains are a quite polite bunch, although whores and gamblers might be a bit more troublesome than penniless college grads and seniors on their second honeymoon. To complete the apocalyptic vision is ‘We Are Alive’, where the various heroes of the American struggle come to life, almost literally. His heroes aren’t the Founding Fathers much loved by the Tea Party though, but a striking coal-miner, a civil rights activist, and a Mexican immigrant, an inflammatory trio in the face of a right wing backlash which demonises organised labour and immigrants and often has ugly racial overtones. This is Revelations rather than Micah, the final resurrection. It’s one hell of a way to end an album.
But is it a good album? Well… it’s a bit average, to be honest. Most noticeably, the sheer force of the E Street Band is missing for most of it. The experimentation with various different genres is interesting, but sometimes unsettling – as in The Rising, gospel features quite successfully, but ‘Rocky Ground’ experiments (to my mind not totally successfully) with rap. And ‘Jack of All Trades’, a quiet and melancholy ballad, comes over a bit maudlin. The best songs are the ones with characteristic Springsteenian energy – ‘Wrecking Ball’, ‘We Take Care of Our Own’ and ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ are best to my mind. None of it really catches my attention as much as Magic did (I must confess I’ve only listened to Working on a Dream once – it didn’t immediately grab me either). Still, a decent album album from the Boss is still better than a good album from a lesser artist. I’ll let you decide what you think of him, in any case, with a live performance of ‘Death to Our Hometown’.
(Incidentally, does anyone else find that Springsteen looks unnervingly like The Orgazoid from Peep Show?)
Edit: edited because of my chronic inability to proofread.