Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen's angry, post-Occupy riposte to economic injustice in America, looked like precisely the sort of album that made me a Springsteen fan way back in the seventies, when Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River made workaday suburban reality seem somehow heroic. According to the pre-release buzz, Springsteen was, as then, writing from his gut, lending a voice to downsized factory workers and mortgage-hobbled small-town families.
Within days of the album's release, Wrecking Ball was being hailed as one of his best, earning five stars from Rolling Stone and raves elsewhere for its "big rock" sound and "overtly political" lyrics.
But however much this latest epistle from St. Bruce of the Working Class was met with critical hosannas, it left me feeling like an apostate. With its folkloric melodies and overstuffed arrangements, humble narrators and sloganeering refrains, Wrecking Ball is blessed with all of Springsteen's classic moves — and they move me not in the slightest.
It's not that I disagree with his politics (although I have some quibbles) or doubt his sincerity. I still believe in what Springsteen stands for.
What I've lost faith in is his music.
Back in the seventies and early eighties, what made Springsteen so invigorating was the way he managed to evoke both the basic kick of rock's roots and the arena-sized grandeur of its later incarnations. Although some sniggered that his sound owed as much to Broadway as to the Brill Building, Springsteen kept his arrangements lean and his melodies tart. Compared to Jim Steinman, who whipped a similar set of influences into a orgy of mock-operatic bombast for Meatloaf and Bonnie Tyler, Springsteen back then was practically a minimalist.
Not any more. Springsteen's sound over the last decade has bulked up embarrassingly. Between the folkie overkill of We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, which sounded like the New Christy Minstrels on steroids, and the dense guitar sludge of Working on a Dream, which suggested what garage rock might have been had it been invented in a multistory Manhattan carpark, Springsteen's later work has all the subtlety of a flying mallet.
Wrecking Ball is similarly overstuffed, with sawing violins, braying brass and earnestly harmonizing gospel choirs crammed into every available cranny. Such excess would have been understandable had Springsteen been writing populist epics, as he did on The River, but he's in protest mode here and so opts instead for ersatz Woody Guthrie.
It's as if Springsteen thinks that politically progressive pop hasn't, um, progressed since the 1940s, and so fills his songs with all the sonic signifiers of folkie goodness. Easy Money backs Springsteen's hillbilly drawl with fiddle and jangly acoustic guitars, the rebel-style Death to My Hometown is outfitted with Irish-y banjo and pennywhistle, while the earnestly inclusive Land of Hope and Dreams gets everything from Mariachi trumpets to twangy Western guitar.
It's an impressive vision of musical Americana, but it's as much an idealized construct as the bicycle-safe small-town streets of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America." In both cases, we're presented with a set of signifiers meant to trigger emotional associations that will help us believe in the righteousness of the view being presented. Trouble is, neither bears much resemblance to actual reality.
Springsteen works hard to present what he believes to be the working man's viewpoint, although I doubt that many these days talk of "robber barons" and life "up on banker's hill." I admire the moxie required to open a song with the unintentionally comic offer, "I'll mow your lawn," but on the whole, I'm not convinced. The union-friendly, old-style liberal politics espoused on Wrecking Ball are more likely to appeal to college-educated boomers than the (now mostly Republican) working stiffs he celebrates.
Ironically, the protest music that resonates most deeply with many American blue-collar labourers isn't stuff like what Springsteen sings, but more conservatively inclined fare from country singers like Toby Keith, Darryl Worley or John Rich.
Part of the problem is that edgy, contemporary, left-leaning protest music doesn't much exist these days. Big rock stars like U2 or the Foo Fighters have too much at stake commercially to take a potentially controversial stand, while pop provocateurs like Lady Gaga and Madonna are more interested in sex and religion than politics.
Guitarist Tom Morello, who made some of the angriest, most electrifying music of the 1990s with Rage Against the Machine, now makes protest music under the moniker the Night Watchman, but in that incarnation he too takes the Guthrie approach. Not surprisingly, he makes a couple of cameos on Wrecking Ball.
While punk's political wing still wants to party like it's 1977, some metal bands – Napalm Death, Lamb of God, Misery Index – have done an admirable job of making underclass anger audible and contemporary. Nor are metalheads simply erecting a wall of noise as a defence against marginalization; former System of a Down front man Serj Tankian offered a biting critique of social inequality on his bitingly bitter orchestral album, Elect the Dead Symphony.
But as the United States marches toward the November elections, you won't see too many pundits using Elect the Dead to argue against voting Republican. No, their iPods will likely have Wrecking Ball on permanent rotation, and that saddens me. Because if this is the soundtrack of the American Left, no wonder people in the U.S. think liberalism is dead.