Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Another Masterpiece

Bruce Springsteen has just released his 17th album and he can't seem to get much love. For reasons of both outsized expectations and abject misunderstanding, a number of critics and fans are at the least unenthusiastic about the release. It's not the first time so many will be on the wrong side of history. It's not as if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unopposed.

Wrecking Ball isn't an accomplishment on the level of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, certainly. But in the long and tortured history of art and artists, it's an epic accomplishment that history most assuredly will eventually hail as one of the key pillars in the career of one of America's most accomplished, most respected, most talented rock musician of all time.

I'm not so much interested in reviewing Wrecking Ball on its own merits. There are those better suited to that sort of thing then me. But I am interested in having a conversation about Wrecking Ball and its rightful place in contemporary music.

Given Springsteen's age and iconic status, I rather doubt that this album will receive airplay, if that's even a concept these days. My interaction with terrestrial radio mimics most of the rest of society these days, which is to say that it's not much. It's still the best place for news on the hour and traffic reports when you're stuck bmper to bumper on the interstate, but as an abiding outlet for the discovery of music, it's usefulness has long been supplanted by any number of other options. So airplay as a goal seems so 1982, doesn't it?

Where music is heard and experienced these days is far more a function of social media. But even at that, I don't see the majority of Facebook or Twitter users or whatever equivalent platform someone is using these days giving much buzz to the album. Whatever else Springsteen may be, he's not Adele.

It's way too late for Springsteen to be the next flavor of the month anyway, not that he ever made any effort in that regard. So the album will be experienced if at all by those who deliberately seek it out. And those who seek it out will be prodded often by the reviews they read about it. In that sense, getting the review correct carries a fair amount of responsibility.

Most of the negative reviews focus on the simple: The lyrics and themes seem too familiar, almost cliché. The melodies aren't interesting. The production is boring, strange, weird take your pick. And if I have to hear one more pennywhistle, just shoot me.

In some sense, the lyrics and themes may be familiar but that is because Springsteen, particularly in the last 10-15 years, has become much more familiar. Early in his career he was media shy. During the last two presidential elections, he was everywhere. He gives plenty of interviews where lazy reporters/journalists/entertainers ask the questions he's answered already. If you don't know where Springsteen stands then you deliberately aren't listening.

When Springsteen talks about the distance between the American Dream and the American Reality, we have heard it before. It's what's on his mind. That he would push his art in that direction shouldn't be a surprise. That's what artists should do. In that context it makes the “lyrics and themes” argument silly.

At the same time, what these reviewers consistently have missed is how Springsteen can take those familiar themes and personalize and localize them in a way that he hasn't quite done before. For example, the desperate two-bit criminal in Easy Money may at first blush not seem all that different from the desperate two-bit criminal in Highway 29 from The Ghost of Tom Joad album. But on further review they couldn't be more different.

In Highway 29, there's no sense of that criminal's motivation. In some sense he's a continuation of the theme first developed in Nebraska that there's just a meanness in this world. But you also get the sense that he robbed the bank not out of desperation as much as boredom. He was a thrill seeker who had picked up a girl in a shoe store and off they went.

The criminal in Easy Money is acting out of both desperation and defiance. He didn't just watch but lived the picking of his pockets at the hands of forces he couldn't control and decided to turn the paradigm on its head. He figures “why shouldn't I do what's been do to me?” “Why can't I grab what I need when a banker can gut the financial system and send the economy into a near death spiral and get away in plain sight?” It's a far different question that Springsteen is trying to pose even if the theme seems familiar. Can there be morality in a more honest, direct crime?

That's true, frankly, of every song on Wrecking Ball. I could listen to Jack of All Trades 10,000 times and have my heart broken each and every time. The melody is incredibly simple, yes, and amazingly effective. The narrator expresses the thoughts we've all had at one time or another. Who hasn't said that they would flip burgers if that's the only work left and you had a family to feed? Well, the narrator isn't just faced with the prospect in theory. He walks the street every day in search of work only to come home empty handed to a wife that's growing increasingly worried. What can he do but reassure her that everything will be all right? Can he? Will it?

Springsteen has said that this is his most direct album he's ever written but in typical Springsteen fashion, I suspect that statement has been misinterpreted. On many songs over many albums, Springsteen's point of view can be far more ambiguous. A song like 41 Shots, for example, if written for Wrecking Ball might have taken more of a position then it does. But it's just this gift for ambiguity, of understanding that there are more then just a few points to any story, that's made Springsteen such an effective songwriter for so many years.

While the points of view on each song on Wrecking Ball may be far more direct, they don't lack for nuance. Who exactly is the narrator of Rocky Ground? It could be any number of people—a priest, a parishioner, a man on death row-- and it still works. What about We Are Alive? Are those the ghosts of heroes past, who fought the other wars worth fighting, talking or are they just the thoughts that are in our heads?

I just don't buy the view that Springsteen is mining familiar ground instead of breaking new. Indeed, you don't have to look all that hard to see the new ground broken on this album. That's what makes this such an astonishing accomplishment for a songwriter as prolific as Springsteen. He still has something new to say and something worth saying despite a career that's spanned 45 or so years at this point.

Then there's the argument that as a soundtrack for the Occupy Wall Street movement, the album falls short of capturing the sentiment. This line of thought suffers from a faulty premise or, as we say in the legal business, from facts not in evidence.

On a basic level, three of the songs precede the Occupy Wall Street movement. From that standpoint alone it could hardly be said it's purpose was to give voice to the cacophony emanating from that movement. But I suspect it never occurred to Springsteen to try and give voice to that movement in the first place. Rather, this work is borne out of the same set of circumstances that gave rise to the movement. In that sense, it's at best intended as a companion piece and not a 5,000 foot observation.

Maybe the real problem for certain reviewers is that Springsteen didn't try to give voice to Occupy Wall Street like Dylan and others gave voice to the Viet Nam protest movement. God knows it could have used it. The Occupy Wall Streeters had a real opportunity to create a viable counterpoint to the Tea Party nabobs but blew it out of an abiding sense that there was more virtue in being disorganized. Their message got diffused and derided not because it wasn't valid but because it wasn't coherent. There's a real and palpable frustration still with an economy that is too slow in recovery and a government that is too cynical to act. It's a movement that should have a voice and here's hoping it finds one. But to blame Springsteen for not stepping forward to fill that void or, worse, to assume he has and then fell short, is an unfair burden and clouds the judgment.

At its core, Wrecking Ball is both a product of these times and of all times. When this album is still celebrated decades from now, some enterprising types will dig up some of these old reviews and shake their heads and laugh at the foolishness. Art is often best appreciated in retrospect so there is precedent.

But there's no reason not to enjoy the gift that's here and now, those opinions aside. Wrecking Ball is a gift that will keep on giving even if the jaded among us are too hip to notice.


Anonymous said...

Bottom line here, GB, is that the man is still relevant. After 45 years, still relevant. Like Neil Young, a musical force. True to himself and possessing a heart and soul.

Anonymous said...

I speak as a fan and an artist. And like everyone, critics included, my opinions are subjective. If one can design a life around their passions, that really is the ultimate payoff. Bruce has and will continue to be just fine in that department. The artist's responsibility is to the work--to please him/herself first--and with that always have the satisfaction of seeing a vision through. Many creators live in obscurity, which in no way diminishes the value of the work. Others, like Harper Lee, write one masterpiece--how many among us can say that? To Kill A Mockingbird will remain just that, no matter how many or few discover it. And Harper lee's contribution to literature comes to full measure by any account. I especially savor your social and political commentary--always worth waiting for. For you and Bruce and those creating in obscurity, if the work is honest, it is time well spent. It really is about having the balls to live an authentic life--and then put our name on it.....M.