Bruce Springsteen has been, for more than 35 years, one of the great chroniclers of American working-class life. But until recent years, though, his songs only rarely connected the dots between the pains of that life and economic inequality and oppression. In recent years he has moved toward that, both in his public statements and his music, but Wrecking Ball, due out on Tuesday but already widely previewed (licitly and illicitly) online, contains some of the most political music he's written. It is also, in places, deeply gospel-inflected, with the political and spiritual knitting into a moral argument. We may be lost, individually or as a society, we may be oppressed and barely clinging to hope. But we can't believe either that it's good enough for things to be better in the next world (there's no "you'll get pie in the sky when you die" on Wrecking Ball) or that the fight for something better in the here and now is anything but a fight for our souls and the soul of the nation.
"Death to My Hometown" is perhaps the strongest such political statement (and, to my biased ear, the strongest song) on the album, beginning as a riddle: "No bombs fell from the sky, no blood soaked the ground" but "just as sure as the hand of God they brought death to my hometown." We don't know through most of the song who brought the death Springsteen sings about in clipped, bitter tones to music that alternates between a spare, driving beat and a more lush, swinging sound with the thread of a choir just audible beneath Celtic instrumentation. But death doesn't sound like a metaphor here. He is angry and he is mourning. Then, late in the song, we get the answer: It's robber barons, "greedy thieves who came around/And ate the flesh of everything they found." They, the robber barons, brought this blood-free death, and they'll be returning. Springsteen's voice drives through the final indictment; "Whose crimes have gone unpunished now/Who walk the streets as free men now," the final "now" echoing, reinforcing that while there is a death to be mourned, there is also an ongoing injustice. The song ends with another swell of that choir—a revolution? a funeral? some of both?
(Except that—and this is where my bias comes in—it's not a choir. It's a Sacred Harp convention, as recorded by Alan Lomax in Alabama in 1959 and I have sung that song with people who were there that day and, I would be remiss not to note, wrote a book partially inspired by the 1999 meeting of that same convention Lomax recorded and Springsteen samples.)
But "Death to My Hometown" has company on Wrecking Ball as a political song. As on so many earlier Springsteen albums, Wrecking Ball is populated by characters speaking to us, telling their stories. Those stories were never as bright and hopeful as their often-anthemic settings made casual or careless listeners think, but they've gotten darker and again, point a finger at the causes of the darkness. In "Jack of All Trades," a man lists all the jobs he does in the effort to survive, assuring that "I'm a jack of all trades, honey, we'll be all right." But despite that reassurance, despite the comforting (or defeated? we can't quite tell) tone and the litany of work he can and will do, this struggle for survival has context—"The banker man grows fatter, the working man grows thin"—and, if at the time those lines are delivered they sound resigned, two verses later, the speaker voices his anger—"If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight."
The refrain, indeed almost the whole, of "We Take Care of Our Own" is "wherever this flag's flown/we take care of our own," lines that in another context could cross into jingoism, but the verses speak to abandonment—"From the shotgun shack to the Super Dome/There ain't no help, the cavalry stayed home"—and to seeking, seeking home and mercy and the "promise from sea to the shining sea." Repeated so many times it becomes more like a mantra than a mere chorus, "we take care of our own" becomes both a promise and a promise betrayed. Even in the meditative, spiritual-inflected "Rocky Ground," which begins with another sample from a Lomax recording, this one of "I'm a Soldier in the Army of the Lord" as performed by a Church of God in Christ congregation in Mississippi, bankers make an appearance as the money changers in the temple. With that reference and in the broader context of the album, the rocky ground we're traveling and the higher ground we seek become not necessarily heaven but a better world here.
While I'm engaging these songs on political grounds, that's something I'd only take the time to do because they've engaged me on musical grounds. Wrecking Ball is not Springsteen's greatest album ever—but saying that in the context of a career that has repeatedly reached greatness is not necessarily faint praise. Springsteen is attempting here to grapple with a shattered world, a more complex task than inhabiting the stories of young men beating against the walls of their lives; just seeing where those walls are and who built them makes it hard to build to the anthemic pitch of albums like Born to Run and Born in the USA, even as the voices in those songs often undermined the headlong flight embodied in the music. Even as compared with the mournful tone of earlier songs such as "Factory" and "The River," the songs on Wrecking Ball take on a difficult task. The range of the songs, from sorrow to anger to determination to hope, offer an emotional map for our time and our fight for something better. It's not a perfect map or a perfect album, but it's an important task and a good listen.