Exclusive: Bruce Springsteen Explains His Experimental New Album
‘This is as direct a record as I ever made,’ he says
Two years ago Bruce Springsteen told Rolling Stone that he had just written his first song about a “guy that wears a tie.” The songwriter had spent much of his career writing about characters struggling in tough economic times, but the financial crisis convinced him it was time to write about the people and forces that brought America to this ugly point.
The result was Wrecking Ball, a scathing indictment of Wall Street greed and corruption and a look into the devastation it has wrought. “This is as direct a record as I ever made,” Springsteen tells Rolling Stone. “That’s with the possible exception of Nebraska, which this record has a lot in common with.”
The stark subject matter is paired with an experimental sonic palette that Springsteen created with producer Ron Aniello. “The record basically started out as folk music – just me and a guitar singing these songs,” says Springsteen. “Then Ron brought a large library of sound that allowed me to explore – like maybe a hip-hop drum loop or country-blues stomp loop. The actual drums came later. There was no preconceived set of instruments that needed to be used, I could go anywhere, do anything, use anything. It was very wide open.”
Album opener “We Take Care of Our Own” poses a question: Do Americans take care of their own? The songs that follow make the answer clear: The narrator of the slow waltz “Jack of All Trades” struggles to find work, while the anti-hero of the country-folk stomper “Easy Money” decides to imitate “all them fat cats” on Wall Street by turning to crime. The similarly uptempo “Shackled and Drawn,” meanwhile, offers a political analysis worthy of Woody Guthrie: “Gambling man rolls the dice, workingman 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.”
The album’s themes shift midway through, as economic despair gives way to a quest for spiritual redemption. It ends on a hopeful note with the ambitious “We Are Alive.” The song takes on an Irish-wake feel, as Springsteen celebrates Americans (and aspiring ones) who died fighting for progress: “I was killed in Maryland in 1877/ When the railroad workers made their stand/ I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham/ I died last year crossing the Southern desert my children left behind in San Pablo… We are alive/ And though we lie alone here in the dark/ Our souls will rise/ To carry the fire and light the spark/ To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”
There are genuine musical surprises throughout. The cinematic “Rocky Ground” expands on the hip-hop-inspired vibe of “Streets of Philadelphia,” while prominently featuring the voice of gospel singer Michelle Moore, who even delivers a brief, apparently Springsteen-penned rap. “Death To My Hometown” is a Celtic-influenced foot-stomper that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Dropkick Murphys album. “We Are Alive” borrows the horn riff from Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire,” while “Land Of Hope And Dreams” (originally written and played live with the E Street Band in 1999) has been re-worked with electronic drums and a gospel choir.
“Hope and Dreams” also has a saxophone solo by the late Clarence Clemons. The Big Man’s sax can also be heard on “Wrecking Ball,” alongside trumpeter Curt Ramm – who will be in the five-piece horn section (which also includes Clemons’ nephew Jake) that will be hitting the road with Springsteen on his upcoming tour.