It begins with big drums, a guitar seesawing beneath like a deck rolling in high seas. It ends with a fuzz of static and feedback, a hiss of promises broken and a mortgage on the future.
In the 13 songs that unfold in between, one of the elder statesmen of American popular music delivers what might fairly be called a State of the Union Address. And if that sounds grandiose for a rock album, so be it. But know that, for all the manicured eloquence of the constitutionally mandated report President Obama delivered in January, the new Bruce Springsteen album, Wrecking Ball, captures more raw emotional truth about the state of the American Dream than any politician ever could.
These first years of the millennium have been extraordinarily trying, especially for a nation that had passed a quarter century in relative peace. Then came terror. Then came wars. Then came economic meltdown. And in the last, we were galled to find that what had brought us to the brink of ruin was the greed, corruption, mendacity and predatory practices of giant money houses and that we were now required to save them from the consequences of their misdeeds because they were too big to fail.
Meantime, we failed right, left and sideways, as jobs went away and money grew tight, as horizons receded and hope shriveled down to a wrinkled shell of itself and people who’d never asked for all that much to begin with — a fair chance to earn their own bread, care for themselves, house themselves — found their aspirations padlocked behind them, their dreams set out at the curb. In a nation where corporations are people and fetuses are people, actual people could not catch a break, nor even much in the way of empathy.
It is from the heart of this disconnection, this chasm between America that is and America that ought to be, that Springsteen issues his report. He finds depression, lamentation, and resignation, as in a man forced to make a living by piecemeal as a Jack of All Trades. He finds anger, too. In Shackled and Drawn, he sings, “Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bill. It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill. Up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong. Down here below, we’re shackled and drawn.” On We Take Care Of Our Own, the anger is accusatory, a demand for an America that looks out for Americans.
But with the anger, depression, lamentation and resignation, there is also defiance. There are also sprigs of hope. “Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past,” he promises on Land of Hope And Dreams. The title song, which commemorates the 2010 demolition of Giants Stadium, also functions as a statement of pugnacious pride: “Take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got. Bring on your wrecking ball!” In other words: knock me down — if you can.
There is something quintessentially American in that. One recalls Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s one-word rejection of a Nazi demand for surrender: “Nuts!” One recalls Franklin Roosevelt’s standing up to “fear itself” in the depths of the Great Depression. One recalls that look on Apollo Creed’s face when Rocky Balboa got up off the canvas.
That is what America is — hope and defiance in the face of challenge — and there is something oddly patriotic in Springsteen’s evocation of that in these hard times Not the easy patriotism of Lee Greenwood’s song and children waving sparklers on July 4th, but the hard and determined patriotism of those who will be down, but never stay down, never accept the gap between the America that is and the one that ought to be.
It is Springsteen’s triumph to honor anger and lamentation, but also to look beyond them. And to remind us that, though hard times come and hard times go, hope and defiance still abide and sustain.
Bring on your wrecking ball.