Oooh – so close. Just missed it by a whisker, by a hair’s breadth. We were so close to having another masterpiece on our hands, and all it would have taken was a stroke of the pen, just enough ink to draw a line through that final title on the track list and draw to a close one of the finest, and most timely, sets of songs to be released in a good while. You may have read in the current periodicals that Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball was a solid effort, a noble failure, an encouraging sign, or even an embarrassing gaffe. These opinions are wrong and you should not listen to them. Wrecking Ball is ambitious, honest and alive, and all it would have taken for it to equal – that’s right: equal – the Springsteen FM radio staples of Born To Run (1975) and Born In The USA (1984) would have been to get rid of just that one last fucking song. Without it, it would have been a comprehensive challenge to the Neil Youngs and Bob Dylans of this world to show that it’s not good enough for the aged rocker to release an album that is ‘not bad, considering’. As it stands, Wrecking Ball still represents a fearsome new benchmark against which the golden oldies must measure themselves.

It could have been a real disaster, too. For the last half decade or so, it looked like Springsteen had well and truly settled into the ‘craftsman’ phase of rock musicianship, when the style has been established, the hits have been written, and all that remains is for the superannuated rocker to release a slow but steady stream of modest albums that does nothing much but demonstrate their professionalism and skill. Springsteen’s previous efforts, Magic (2007) and Working On A Dream (2009) were, while certainly a cut above the usual efforts, firmly within this category, and while one mustn’t treat their favourite musicians as a museum display, to be embalmed and put under glass for historical consideration, there was a sense in those albums that they were lacking an essential Springsteenitude, the kind of earnest wildness that was so crucial to his appeal, more so than the organ, the saxophone, or the aw-shucks lyricism ever were. When word went round that Springsteen’s latest was to be highly political and – oh god – contemporary, featuring drum loops and rap, even the most ardent devotees began to think that it might be quitting time for the Boss. Did anyone really want to hear the most right-wing sounding left-winger sound off on the checklist of post financial crisis malaise? Turns out they should’ve.

Firstly, you scared-of-change types out there can quit the rocking back and forth – he still sounds like Springsteen. Yes, he uses a fair few drum loops, and every so often a track is graced with a sizzling wash of synthesisers beyond the standard ‘I’m old but still with it’ level, but these, and the many other additions to Springsteen’s sonic palette have the curious effect of making him sound more like the Boss than on the classicist pop-rock of his previous two outings. The gospel choirs and the horn sections and the drum machines and the Celtic hoedowns aren’t there because he wants to sound down with the kids, they’re there because fuck it that’s what the songs needed. In its sonic extravagance and lyrical rage, Wrecking Ball effectively combines the defining qualities of Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978) respectively, only expressed in a manner that would have been impossible both in that era in rock history, and at that time of Springsteen’s life. What the songwriting may have lost in the years in the way of Springsteen’s patented youthful desperation and florid imagination, it has, on this record at least, gained by way of a road-worn empathy and emotional directness. While the showy, exuberant novelisation of small-town dreams was what made classic Springsteen so special, the latter-day Boss has effectively compensated for the inevitable loss of that reckless drive by approaching the hard times of the 21st century with a rock hard humility and weary hopefulness that, while not reaching such thrilling heights, rings true in a way that the work of a younger man never could.

It doesn’t hit you straight away though. Prior to the album’s release, various websites started streaming Wrecking Ball‘s first single, and opening track, ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’, and it was easy to be a little disappointed. Given all the ballyhooing about new textures and political sentiments, here was a track that just felt like more of the same. Sure it had an interesting intro, and the lyrics were quite specifically related to America’s ongoing economic woes, but it all felt just a little too modest. This was the big statement we were waiting for? Turns out you just need to give the Boss a little time to explain himself. Slowly, subtly, the track worms its way into your head, and when after several times streaming it over shitty computer speakers you finally hear the CD cranked out of a fine pair of speakers it becomes clear how much of a punch this track packs. This is what’s really so central to the album’s appeal; it comes with a healthy dose of wallop that can be felt even throughout more restrained cuts like ‘This Depression’ and ‘You’ve Got It’. The guitars smack and twang, and the drums, no matter how synthesised they may get, fill the record’s low end with a lusty rumble. It’s a real live record, one that – despite frequent use of overdubs – manages to retain that monolithic energy of a rock band on the run, particularly on the more folky, vaguely Celtic sounding tracks; ‘Easy Money’, ‘Shackled And Drawn’ and ‘Death To My Hometown’. If no particular instrumentalist can said to be standout then it is largely due to the ensemble oriented nature of the material rather than inherent lack of imagination. Springsteen’s voice too is in particularly fine form, treading the fine line between furious bombast and deadpan sincerity that helps keep the album from collapsing under the weight of its own earnestness.

It’s line-ball there for a while though. When you make an album with the aim of being topical, you’re really begging for the critics to come at you with all they’ve got. While some have criticised the record for its overly political, some may argue preachy, tone, it’s difficult to really identify any key points at which the record explicitly aligns itself with any particular political view. Rather it expresses a fairly simple populist message that can be pretty readily adapted to wherever you sit on the partisan spectrum: things are bad for a lot of people and this was because some people fucked up. Apart from two or three explicit references deriding ‘bankers’ and ‘Wall Street’, it really doesn’t get more revolutionary than that, and this is part of what makes the album work. It harnesses enough of that frustration to give the music a focus and drive that is startling in comparison to musicians half his age, let alone his own back catalogue, but it manages to avoid the kind of dour specificity present in most politically oriented rock that can rob it of both charisma and longevity. In an age of Katy Perrys and One Directions, it is enough that a popular musician is addressing public malaise at a level beyond ‘girl, sometimes times get hard‘ – we don’t need Springsteen to pick up a guitar and get down to discussing the intricacies of government oversight in the financial sector.

The qualities discussed above lift Wrecking Ball well above the too-low standard set for mature rockers nowadays, but they aren’t quite able to lift it to the vaunted ranks of so-close-to-perfect-that-we’ll-call-it-even. There are just a few troublemakers, a few little niggling faults that tarnish the record’s muscular gleam. The main offender is the final track, ‘We Are Alive’. It’s not needed, and it’s not that good. Coming after ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’, a heartbreakingly hopeful epic that somehow manages to shrug off the inherit corniness of its central metaphor with a slight twist on the classic Springsteen chest-thumper, it’s a none-too-subtle let down. With its admittedly interesting Theremin-style synth and a horn line clearly (and inexplicably) quoting from Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire’ to back a lyric sung from the perspective of dead soldiers, it is a throwback to the craftsman albums of several years earlier, both in the corniness of its conceit, and the general air of being unnecessary. Presumably its inclusion was meant to provide a sense of hope or a ‘que sera ‘ style message to close what is for the most part a pretty downtrodden record, however ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’ performs this function admirably, and with far less cheese.

But let’s not get hung up on one measly little track. It’s not bad, just unnecessary, and the only way you can get through to it is by listening to a whole lot of great record (unless you’re the type who’s permanently stuck in ‘pick and choose’ mode, in which case why are you reading an album review when you could be tweeting about what you ate for breakfast?). And Wrecking Ball is just that: great. It is one of the very few albums by a ‘classic’ rock musician that manages to capture both the essence of their original appeal, and also the capabilities of music as it has evolved since, and that does both without sounding like it’s trying to do anything but be itself. People will complain about the politics or the instruments or that there’s nothing on there that even sounds like ‘Thunder Road’. Fuck ’em – Springsteen has never sounded more like the Boss.

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