Although the pre-release gossip about the Boss utilizing loops and samples was true — and despite the synthesized sounds that kick off the album's first single and opening track, "We Take Care of Our Own" (the most generic tune, melody-wise, although it will probably kick ass live) — Wrecking Ball is not a case of "Springsteen goes electronica." Yes, most of the E Street Band is absent, although the late Clarence Clemons' distinctive sax shows up on the title track and "Land of Hope & Dreams." They've been replaced by such guest musicians as Ron Aniello, the album's producer, guitarist Tom Morello, and some of the same lineup that played on The Seeger Sessions. The latter is what this probably most resembles, although less spirited … but way more spirited than The Ghost of Tom Joad or Nebraska, which both shared similar bleak themes.
Springsteen has always borrowed from and quoted rock history in his music. And that's basically the same function the samples here provide. "Land of Hope & Glory," a live staple for more than a decade (but much more lush here), was always part Curtis Mayfield anyway. So a cop from the Impressions makes perfect sense. Old Alan Lomax recorded field songs show up, as do the Alabama Sacred Harp Convention, also a Lomax recording from the late '50s, accentuating the stirring Celtic-meets-Okie sound that runs through "Death of My Hometown." A riff borrowed from Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" on "We Are Alive" ends up more spaghetti Western than June Carter — but no less stirring than Cash's original recording. And yet, even when Michelle Moore delivers a really cool rap —yes, a rap — on "Rocky Ground," it all seems to fit, never sounds pre-programmed or less than alive ... and, well, like a Bruce Springsteen record.
Thematically, this is an album that Detroit might embrace. Because as Detroit goes so goes Michigan — and so eventually goes the USA, blah, blah, blah. And Wrecking Ball is a series of snapshots portraying the decimation of America itself, even more so than just an intangible "American Dream" — a victim of literal wrecking balls (or lack thereof) and a philosophy that's virtually destroyed a country's working and middle classes. The titles here — one track is called "This Depression," for goodness sakes — are pretty self-explanatory.
But amid biblical fire and brimstone allusions, there are also sinister undertones, such as the "Smith & Wesson 35" that accompanies the protagonist on his date in "Easy Money," or, more graphically, the angry worker, now a "Jack of All Trades," who vows at that song's conclusion: "If I had me a gun, I'd find the [banking] bastards and shoot 'em on sight." It all boils down to a national zeitgeist of desperation and resignation.
Not his greatest album ever — he's competing only with himself at this point — but still a pretty great album. And though it's often cliché to say so, one that couldn't be any more timely.