It’s almost as if Bruce Springsteen is tempting fate. Way back in 1984 when his best-known song Born in The USA was misappropriated by Ronald Reagan as the theme to his successful re-election campaign, Bruce was mightily annoyed and quite rightly too. Here we are again in another American election year that promises to be particularly dirty and here we are again with another Springsteen song that may be coveted by both sides and co-opted as their own battle cry at the hustings.
It’s We Take Care of Our Own, the big, booming opening track on Springsteen’s 17th album and the one most likely to be misintrepreted by opportunistic politicians as a jingoistic anthem of patriotism. “We take care of our own wherever this flag is flown” Bruce affirms over a rousing, blustery rock-out and you can already see Romney’s rictus grin cracking open and, preferably, Obama’s foot stomping along. Listen to the lyrics, however, and you’ll know that this is no Star Spangled Banner rewrite.
But that’s always been the beauty of Bruce. He’s a man who has spent his whole career taking the wildly fluctuating temperature of the American Dream and never more so than on this angry, rigtheous album. He rallies his own coalition of the willing including Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine, gospel choirs, a skeleton crew version of The E Street band (these are the last recordings of Clarence Clemons) and even a rapper to square up to the bankers and modern-age robber barons who have laid waste to the cities and heartlands he has eulogised all his life.
Fat cats are called out for a showdown and you get the feeling Springsteen wants to paint Wall Street blood red. Even the album art proclaims that this is The Boss on high alert, back against the wall and ready to defend the rights of the working man; graffitti is scrawled over a picture of Bruce, head bowed in comtemplation but hefting his guitar. If Woody Guthrie had the legend "This machine kills fascists" scrawled on his guitar, Bruce may very well have "this machine brings bankers to justice" on his.
That’s certainly true of Jack of All Trades. It may start as a simple story of a working man comforting himself and his wife, telling her that eveything will be ok despite the hard times but it concludes with the line “If I had a gun I’d find the bastards and shoot them on sight.” Guns are also invoked on Easy Money when Springsteen paints an almost Depression era picture of a working man turned bank robber turned folk hero.
The chain gang chant of Shackled and Drawn avers that “Freedom son’s a dirty shirt, a shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone.” But on the outstanding Death to My Hometown the anger boils over. Civil War imagery is evoked but it wasn’t the ravages of war that laid waste to the heartland but greed and corruption. “They destroyed our factories and took our homes/They left our buddies on the plain and vultures picked their bones.” Springsteen spits over an epic tale that takes in tin whistles, native American Indian choruses and the sound of a gun being cocked for action.
The gospel/soul revue of Land of Hope and Dreams on which The Impressions’ People Get Ready is upholstered may be a cliché too far even for a man who trades in big gestures that are, in his own words, “corny as hell”. But mercifully we play out with the great, great We Are Alive in which Bruce summons the ghosts of the oppressed, the martyred and the forgotten of American life and gathers them around a campfire for a brillianti Mariachi meets Irish folk song reworking of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. Then he sets off into the sunset, whistling with the promise of a better, brighter day.
Big as it is, Wrecking Ball still sounds haunting, weathered and ancient. It’s an overwhelming, all-embracing statement on which a megastar sticks to his guns but this time uses ‘em. It is truly a Springsteen album that stands tall with his very best work. And that's saying something.