Album Review: Wrecking Ball

★★★☆☆

Wrecking Ball is an album of firsts for Bruce Springsteen: his first album without the full E Street Band since 2002’s The Rising; his first album recorded without longtime bandmate Danny Federici, who died of cancer in 2008; and his first recording during Barack Obama’s presidency.

It also contains an important last: the final saxophone recordings of Clarence Clemons, who died in June 2011.

The album splits its moods pretty evenly, starting out angrily and ending up hopeful, moving from low to high. Primarily written in 2011, it reflects pretty bluntly, if not poetically, on an America struck by economic hardship.

“Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” Springsteen asks on “We Take Care of Our Own,” a song that swings from bitter verses to an idealistic chorus and back again. That one line could easily encapsulate the theme of this entire record.

But as it goes on, Wrecking Ball gets lighter. Both lyrically and musically, the latter half is almost strikingly religious, stirring gospel choirs and biblical metaphors into the mix. But Springsteen’s hope is no political slogan.

“Our dreams will not be thwarted / faith will be rewarded,” he sings on “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a song that dates back to at least the early 2000s.

And this is music that reflects on where The Boss has been for the past 10 years or so. He stacks melodies on top of melodies, strings horns on top of pianos, creating a wall-of-sound effect to really drive the point home. Songs like “Easy Money” and the thunderous “Death to My Hometown” bear a strong Celtic-rock influence, perhaps reminiscent of his time in Ireland recording We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.

In addition to the aforementioned gospel touches, which he first began incorporating in 2009’s Working on a Dream, electronic drums and loops show up all over the record. Strange as it is to say, this is a very beat-heavy record. Pay special attention to the drum tracks, many of which Springsteen himself plays – they really drive the songs home.

And while Springsteen is nominally writing about individual people or experiences, his greatest skill has always been making the personal relatable. While he wrote “Wrecking Ball” about the New York Giants and their stadium in the Meadowlands Sports Complex, it is really a song for anyone who feels like they’re being written out of the picture. He writes for everyone; make sure to listen.