Being easy for anthems, examinations of class and privilege that come down on the side of the least privileged, and Springsteen himself, I tried to give Wrecking Ball every conceivable break. I even buy some of the arguments I’ve read in its favor—particularly that the songs are hazy on specifics because they’re protest songs; being broad is the whole point. To which I must counter (and I’m hardly the first) that the people with the most to protest can’t afford a ticket to the live show where these songs undoubtedly find their ideal home. For class-conscious songs that resonate in any setting, and employ humor as the great weapon and salve it can and should be, there is Todd Snider.
Todd Snider: Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
In a world of singer-songwriters with one specialty, Todd Snider has three. Aside from the socio-religio class songs that have become central to his work, he’s got a jaw-dropping knack for the acutely etched relationship song. He’s also developed a subgenre all his own with a series of biographical odes to his musical heroes that at once honor and demystify their subjects. “Brenda,” a highlight of Snider’s ninth album, may mark the first time he’s managed all three at once. The tale of the young couple who meet on a train and go on to build an empire together, only to feel their relationship fray as one of them stays home crunching the numbers that allow the other to party until dawn, is no less sweet or funny or wise for the revelation that it’s about Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. They’re the only millionaires here who aren’t appearing in the murder fantasies of someone less fortunate. Snider’s class-consciousness has grown plainer as he’s grown older. Funny from the beginning, he has never fused anger and humor as totally as he does here: “If I had a nickel/For every dime you had/I’d have half of your money/You talk about not half bad.” He’s just getting warmed up: “It’s too soon to tell what we’ll ever avenge/They say that living well is the best revenge/I say bullshit, the best revenge is revenge.” Snider sets all of this to a rough-hewn blues that seethes and scrapes around him, and he never hits harder than on “In Between Jobs,” in which he offers everyone in that particularly anxious purgatory, feeling duped yet undeterred, words to live by: “You think I‘m not very bright/And you might be right/I might have been born yesterday—but I was up all night.” That’s a great joke, but it’s a better threat. A
Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball
Springsteen’s most sonically suped-up album since Born To Run comes packed with Alan Lomax field recordings, Celtic folk, drum loops, gospel choirs, and snatches of “Ring of Fire” and “People Get Ready.” Until you get to the ill-advised rapping, these are good ideas; they’re meant to give what amounts to Springsteen’s State of the Union address social and historical breadth, make the album a ragged and rangy music of the people. So it’s a shame the production, courtesy of Springsteen and a guy whose previous clients include Candlebox and Sixpence None the Richer, is so big and bloodless even Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello ends up sounding like the guy from Journey. For an album Springsteen’s been pushing as his angriest ever, it’s awfully prim. The Rising, Springsteen’s 2002 reaction to 9/11, and Magic, his 2007 survey of the Bush II era, were also too polished for their own good. But those albums had people. They had stories. Springsteen’s lyrics here are so broad they barely register. “Banker man grows fat/Working man grows thin/It’s all happened before/And it’ll happen again,” goes the representatively pat “Jack of All Trades.” But if Springsteen has any real feeling for what that working man lost (or any ire over what the banker man took from him), it’s swallowed whole by this 21-gun salute of an album. It’s some kind of miracle—or maybe just a testament to the kind of person Springsteen is—that he never once sounds disingenuous, nor remotely opportunistic. He wants to give us the Big Redemption his music has always promised, and his live shows are still where he gets it done because that’s where he still connects. Outside of the arena, Wrecking Ball stands as the most impersonal record he’s ever made. It’s a valiant failure, but a failure nonetheless: an album for everyone, seemingly about no one. B-