by Jos Westenberg
from the Dutch Springsteen fanzine BeTrue.nl, authors of the book Magic Night. Jos had the opportunity to listen to Wrecking Ball on Friday February 17th. Here’s his song by song analysis on the album.
We Take Care of Our Own
The albums opens with the most rocking song you all heard before.
Hiphop with Irish folk mixed together. A lot of hollering by Bruce. There are violins, tambourine and slide guitar. It sounds joyful. In the lyrics, the singer asks his girlfriend to get ready and put on her red dress, to go to town. “You put out the dog, I put out the cat. You put on your coat, I put on my hat.” He’s got a Smith and Wesson .38, to go out robbing some easy money. “All those fat cats will just think it’s funny”. The story does not develop much further than this, and therefore, it’s a little thin. More of a singalong.
Shackled and Drawn
“I woke up this morning shackled and drawn.” It’s a working man song, starts out like folk and ends in gospel. “What’s a poor boy to do in a world gone wrong?”, asks the singer. You can work your life hard, it’s all just “another day older, closer to the grave”. The party is with the bankers who got all the money, and not with the working people: “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.” At the end of the song there is a female singer, straight out of the gospel church, calling repeatedly: “I want everybody to stand up and be counted, I want everybody to pray together”.
Jack of All Trades
Another working man song, like a slow waltz more introvert than the previous song but still with an electronic beat to it. The singer takes on every job he can acquire: gardener, roof mender, carpenter, car mechanic, farmer. “I take the work that God will provide, I’m the Jack of all trades, we’ll be alright.” This is someone who is taking care of his own. If you work hard enough and have faith, you will be alright: “We stood the drought, we’ll stand the flood. There’s a new world coming, I can see the light.” There seems to be a positive answer to the question Bruce asked at the start of the album: “We’ll start caring for each other again.” Although in the end, there is still a slight edge to this positive message: “If I had me a gun, I’ll find the bastards and shoot them on sight.” Who are the villains? “The banker man grows fat, the working man grows thin. It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again.” Bruce is channeling Woody Guthrie’s ‘I Ain’t Got No Home’ (“The gambling man is rich and the working man is poor”). The song ends in sampled loops and a guitar solo from Tom Morello. Mid-song has horns and a trumpet solo by Curt Ramm.
Death to My Hometown
Song starts with a marching drum beat and a tin whistle. It’s a folk song reminiscent of the civil war. The singer warns: his hometown is destroyed, not by canon ball or powder flash, but by the robber barons, a term from end 19th century indicating the powerful industrialists, enriching themselves by doubtful means. “They destroyed our families and factories, then they took our homes. Greedy barons brought death to my hometown.” It’s a warning to the listener, they will be coming to your town too, so “get a song to sing, sing it loud”. And when you see them, those “the robber barons, send them straight to hell”.
A depressing song, lyrically. First verse: “I’ve been down, but never this down. I’ve been lost, but never this lost. This is my confession. I need your heart in this depression. I need your heart.” The singer seeks comfort to get through a lot of heartache. But it all seems hopeless: “All my prayers gone for nowhere. I’ve been without love but never forsaken.” Musically, it’s mainly introvert song but with a beat. There will be no comfort at the end (except maybe for the guitar solo by Tom Morello).
The same version as the live version that debuted in Giants Stadium, except that it is played a lot faster. “Now my home was here in the Meadowlands, where mosquitoes grow big as airplanes. Here where the blood is spilled, the arena’s filled, and Giants play their game.” At the press meeting in Paris, Bruce explained why this song fits in the big picture of the album. “Something gets destroyed, just to build something new. It’s destruction of plain American values and ideals, that happened for the past thirty years.”
You’ve Got It
A simple love song that in the beginning reminds of ‘Trouble in Paradise’ off Tracks, and later, when the rockabilly rhythm picks up, of ‘All Or Nothin’ At All’ of Human Touch. Lyrically not really deep, the character praises his loved one who has ‘it’: “No one ever found it. Ain’t no school ever taught it. Ain’t no one can break it, ain’t no one can steal it. You can’t read it in a book, you can’t dream it. Baby you’ve got it.» And then bodly: «C’mon give it to me.” The singer can not name ‘it’, but still, his love has it: “Honey, it ain’t got a name. You just know it when you see it.” And be careful: “It’s precious, so don’t waste it.” After an acoustic start, electric guitars take over, and there are two guitar solos, with slide.
The weirdest song of the album. If fans where thinking of experimental work on ‘ ‘Worlds Apart’ off The Rising, then this song will leave those fans puzzled. Song starts with a sample of someone shouting “I’m a soldier”, a sample which returns a few time. There are drum loops and later a female voice (Michelle Moore from the Alliance Singers, who also sang on ‘Let’s Be Friends’) does a rap. At the start (and ending) of the song, a female voice sings repeatedly: “We’ve been traveling over rocky ground, rocky ground.”
A lot of biblical images, it’s Springsteen Catholic upbringing at best. Bruce sings to a sheperd to watch his sheep: “Rise up, sheperd, rise up. Your flock has flown far from here.” In the second verse he sings: “Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand” and “The blood on our hands will come back to us twice”. It’s a real atmospheric song, but with some hope at the end: “You pray that hard times, hard times come no more” and “There’s a new day coming.” I can not imagine Bruce playing this with E Street band, the song sounds really too electronic to me.
Land of Hope and Dreams
A true E Street song, but not from the start. An electronic beat opens the song and a woman calls “Oh this train. I’m riding this train, this train, this train.” Then there is Steve’s mandoline (I guess it’s Steve), Max’s drum, organ and then full E Street takes over and builds the intro to a loud start. At the start of the first verse, it’s Bruce solo with acoustic guitar again, but E Street is back at the chorus. Clarence Clemons plays two solos, it’s Bruce’s “lovely moment” on the record, he declared in Paris. Also Steve is singing at the second part of the song and in the end, as the song turns into a gospel similar to the later live versions., a woman is singing parts of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’. It could have been the end of the album.
We Are Alive
Sounds like a bonustrack – starts out sounding like a crackling vinyl recording – but it is not one of the bonus tracks (we didn’t hear these, only the standard edition). Musically, it reminds of The Ghost of Tom Joad album. Lyrically, it’s a bit weird. Death people are calling from the grave. At the start of the song, Bruce references Calvary Hill where Christ was crucified. “A dead man’s moon follows seven rings”. Without understanding, this all sounds like some verses from a Harry Potter novel. Then, “Our spirits rise. To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”
In the second verse, three dead people appear: “A voice called, I was killed in Maryland in 1877, when the railroad workers made their stand.” Bruce refers to the Great Upheaval, a railroad strike in July 1877, which started in Martinsburg, West Virginia and effected large parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland. Governor John Carroll called in militia to stop the strike with force and violence. Thomas Alexander Scott, director at Pennsylvania Railroad, who was reported to be one of the first robber barons, said that a diet of riffle would teach these workers at strike a lesson. Eventually, president Rutherford B. Hayes sent soldiers to end the strikes.
The second dead person sings: “I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham.” This refers to the racial conflicts in Birmingham, Alabama. In September 1963, a bomb attack killed 4 children and wounded many more at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, from where the civics rights movement Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by dr. Martin Luther King operated. The third dead person sings: “I died last year crossing the Southern desert, my children left behind in San Pablo”. San Pablo refers probably to a Mexican town (there are three cities called San Pablo in Mexico). Bruce has written about Mexican immigrants a lot before on The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust. Alle dead people in ‘We Are Alive’ are left alone and forgotten: “They let our bodies here to rot.” But there is a resurrection: “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.”
This story reminds of ‘Matamoras Banks’ off Devils & Dust, where the ghost of a deceased Mexican immigrant floats ashore at the banks of the Matamoras river, and evenually turtles come to eat the skin off his eyes. Musically, ‘We Are Alive’ is joyful and uplifting, and puts a lot of contrast with the story. At the start, it is mainly Bruce with acoustic guitar, but trumpets remind of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ and with violins it turns into Mexican Mariachi street music. It ends with Bruce walking away, whistling.
Musically, Wrecking Ball is uncomparable to any other Springsteen album. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions from 2006 comes close, but Wrecking Ball has more a rock edge to it whereas We Shall Overcome was straight-up folk. Perhaps the closest thing to compare it to, is the song ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live’, which Bruce composed out of the original by Blind Alfred Reed during the Seeger Sessions Tour. Musically, but also thematically.