Sound — 8
First time listeners won't particularly realize it, but "Wrecking Ball" presents a leap forward in Springsteen's sound. Gospel choirs echo across many of the tracks, and horns and strings fill out the sonic spectrum. This is no "acoustic-guitar/condenser-microphone-in-a-depressing-town in-the-Midwest" project. Instead, the album feels like an updating of some of Springsteen's older work. There's the guitar-driven "We Take Care Of Our Own", with the pounding drums that could have been remastered from his stuff in the early 80s, but the album is not content to rest on that note (musical puns are always intended). From track to track you can hear an intensely Celtic sound in a penny-whistle and a mandolin (as on "Death To My Hometown"), you can hear the gospel-influenced "Land Of Hope And Dreams", and you can hear the sway of bands like The Arcade Fire on songs like "Wrecking Ball" and "Jack Of All Trades". The true miracle though, is not that Springsteen pulls from such myriad places on the musical spectrum (he's had practice at changing his sound over a 35 year career); the miracle is that only one track sounds as if he forced himself to go out on a limb. That would be the attempt at incorporating hip-hop into the album on "Rocky Ground", which is, in my opinion, the only flat spot on the record. Every other track brings the full weight of Springsteen's iconic Americana-sound, while seamlessly blending a number of other styles into the album, keeping it fresh but coherent.
Lyrics — 8
Lyrically, its difficult not to compare "Wrecking Ball" to much of Springsteen's canonical work. The words hearken back to some of the great, early Springsteen albums. There are timeless blue-collar themes on the album. From the first line, he mourns the hard times the individuals in the country are pushing through, and he mourns his apparent inability to find help when he searches. "The road of good intentions/has gone dry as a bone." He's especially hard on the so-called Wall Street fat cats. "Up on banker's hill, the party's going strong/down here below we're shackled and drawn." However, while political themes dominate much of the album, he puts it in terms of personal struggle, and his ability to do this has always been one of Springsteen's strong points. Its why when he sings about "the greedy thieves who came around", I'm inclined to perk up and listen, rather than to tune out. Its what has made so much of Springsteen's work great, and what's kept him relevant. He doesn't just speak. He preaches, he rallies, and he inspires. My favorite line of the album comes from his tale of struggle in "Easy Money". "I got a Smith & Wesson.38/I got a hellfire burning and I got me a date." That encapsulates so much of the spirit and vigor of this album, and that's what makes "Wrecking Ball"'s politics more than just ramblings. A final note on the words: some of the tracks are more powerful when considering the personal tragedy Springsteen himself endured this year, namely the loss of iconic sax player, and long-time friend Clarence Clemons. "Land Of Hope And Dreams" culminates in the last solo "The Big Man" recorded with The E Street Band, and his presence haunts the album in a definite way. The ballads on the album (especially "This Depression") focus on coping with this kind of loss, and the fact that Clarence is still part of the record makes the effect of Springsteen's soft-spoken begging for a shoulder to lean on through suffering incredibly visceral.
Overall Impression — 7
All-in-all, this stacks up well in the Springsteen catalogue. Its certainly a leap forward, and it feels like a logical step forward. I don't know if this will be remember by future generations as one of the most important albums The Boss has ever made (I think we'll reserve that kind of praise for "Born To Run"), but it certainly holds up, and in the wake of tragedy, both national and personal, The Boss still has it.