Simon Marcus Gower
As works of art, the album covers of Bruce Springsteen’s numerous releases have never been hugely exciting. Granted, there have been a handful of iconic covers, such as the bold black-and-white photograph of Springsteen and Clarence Clemons on “Born to Run.” But none have been particularly inspiring.
Springsteen’s latest cover, for his March release “Wrecking Ball,” falls into the same pattern as the rest. It is no work of art, yet is somehow representative of the album within.
The artist’s name is spelled out in clumsy lettering that looks like it has been made by a large paintbrush. It is daubed and ham-fisted, and makes its point in an almost brutally upfront way. The same might be said of the album itself — it pulls no punches, saying what it has to say in a very upfront and almost painfully blunt way. And yet this is an album that works on many levels. It makes a point, and does so on the back of some memorable, diverse and toe-tapping tunes.
First, to those boldly painted lyrics. The material in the opening tracks is fairly grim, with lines like “Trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong/Woke up this morning shackled and drawn.” This darkness continues lyrically throughout the album, in songs like “Death to My Hometown,” and “This Depression.”
The references to darkness and corruption in these tracks hark back to Springsteen’s 1978 release, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” in which the songwriter blames corporate interests for robbing city folk of their livelihoods and morality, as echoed here in the line: “All them fat cats, they’ll think it’s funny. I’m goin’ on the town now, lookin’ for easy money.”
This track, “Easy Money,” tells of someone who feels his “whole world comes tumbling down” under the weight of it all, and so declares “I got a Smith & Wesson .38/I got a hellfire burning and I got me a taste.” Lines like these acknowledge the rage that can lead someone to a violent last resort, without explicitly advocating violence.
Similarly, on “Jack of All Trades,” the character resorts to all kinds of work to get by, but knows that “The banker man grows fat, working man grows thin/It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again.”
Despite the gloom and doom of the lyrics, the musical backdrop is, surprisingly, upbeat. It is also varied in its sources of sounds. There are gospel choirs and preachers, mandolins, tin whistles, folksy accordion sounds, brass marching bands and, most surprisingly of all, mariachi bands accompanied by hip-hop rhymes.
A song like “Shackled and Drawn” speaks of tough times and hard-working men, but the rhythm is strong and the accordion-playing is upbeat to the point of sounding like a tavern chorus.
If you only listen to the instrumentals on this album, you will probably feel uplifted by its high-spirited sounds. But for those listening carefully, the gritty lyrics, delivered in Springsteen’s signature roar, give it a bittersweet feel.
Another notable feature is that this is the first album Springsteen has released since the passing of his great friend, the saxophonist Clemons. Springsteen writes touchingly in the liner notes, “I’ll miss my friend, his sax and the force of nature that was his sound. But his love and his story, the story that he gave to me, that he whispered in my ear, and that he gave to you, is going to carry on.”
And so it does, in this album. Even through the darkness and gloom, hope remains. And so, overall, this blunt, brutal and angry album delivers memorable songs to get your spirits up.