I admit that I sometimes fall into the trap of overrating new Springsteen albums. Over the past decade, the one exception was “Working on a Dream,” which I enjoyed but knew right away would never be confused for “Born to Run” or “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” The point is probably most apt for “Magic,” which I placed above “The Rising” a few years back when I compiled my list of Top 25 albums from the 2000s. Given the opportunity for a re-do of that list, the order would be reversed – there are just too many songs on “Magic” that I’m tempted to skip (they’re not horrible, just not that memorable), whereas with “The Rising” the only song I don’t care if I ever hear again is “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin).”
So, perhaps one way – not the only way, and maybe not even the right way – to judge new releases is to identify those songs which serve as the album’s core – the “instant classics,” so to speak – and compare that group of songs with a similar group from a past release. Let’s try that today, and then in a future post I’ll talk about the songs that I wouldn’t put in the “core” category.
Here are the songs I’d identify as being the core of “Wrecking Ball:”
1. We Take Care of Our Own
2. Jack of All Trades
3. Death to My Hometown
4. Wrecking Ball
5. Rocky Ground
6. Land of Hope and Dreams
There are a couple of other songs that might bubble up to this list, but they’re not quite there yet. But even with just those above, you’ve got 6/11, which is a very solid showing. I’d give “Magic” a score of 6/12, while “Rising” clocks in at an impressive 10/15 (and for now, you’ll just have to guess which songs are which).
Of those songs above, Numbers 1, 3 and 4 are pretty obvious choices because they are the album’s “anthems” – the songs that are going to get the crowd going, and get Bruce and the band energized. “Land of Hope and Dreams” has to be on there, because even though it’s an old song, it’s also (in my not-so-humble opinion) one of his all-time best songs. Right now I still prefer the original version (captured on “Live in New York City”), but that’s a quibble. This version is different enough to keep it fresh, and with a song this great, you really can’t keep it down.
But right now, I think the two best songs on the album are “Jack of All Trades” and “Rocky Ground.” The former song is fairly easy to make fun of (as son #2 has proven, with a pretty amusing impression), but there’s a reason for that – it is archetypal Springsteen, doing the things that he is known for, things which bring admiration from some quarters and disdain from others. The camp I fall in was decided long ago, so I have nothing but praise for the song. The story it tells is a stark one, but it is a story for our times. It begins with this:
I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out’ your drain
I’ll mend your roof, to keep out the rain
I take the work that God provides
I’m a jack of all trades, honey we’ll be all right
And ends with this:
So you use what you’ve got and you learn to make do
You take the old, you make it new
If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right
But so far, the song that has taken over my brain is “Rocky Ground,” which in its music and lyrics sounds like it came straight out of a revival meeting. In fact, it reminds me of something off of a Moby album, the songs where he has recorded a new musical backing over a track of an old-time minister preaching to the flock. Essentially, that’s what Springsteen is doing here.
Take a look:
You use your muscle and your mind and you pray your best
That you best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest
You raise your children and you teach them to walk straight and sure
You pray that hard times, hard times come no more
You try to sleep you toss and turn the bottom’s dropping out
Where you once had faith now there’s only doubt
You pray for guidance only silence now meets your prayers
The morning breaks, you awake, but no one’s there
But the song is a musical triumph as well, with Michelle Moore’s impassioned, insistent refrain “We’ve been traveling over rocky ground, rocky ground” lifting the song to a level of tension that it could not have reached without her, good as Bruce’s vocal is.
So far, I’m liking how "Wrecking Ball" stacks up against its immediate predecessors. And if, like I said, a couple of other songs bubble up into the core, than it might be time to do some comparisons with the giants of the catalogue.