Bruce Springsteen is back with a new record made significant since it is the first since the death of long time Sax man Clarence Clemmons. It is said this is one of the most overtly political records Springsteen has made in a while. Having said that, here are my thoughts, track by track.
1. We Take Care Of Our Own: A good start to the record with a traditional Springsteen rocker. All the elements are here; big guitars, piano flourishes, and Bruce at his most earnest. Vocally, there is a definite sense of restraint; a younger Bruce would have screamed the chorus instead here he merely sings it. It could be construed as a bit jingoistic lyrically, but it sets the tone.
2. Easy Money: A country/blues shuffle with a gospel choir paints the picture of what I think is a couple out to commit a crime. Whether it is out of need or the thrill is unclear, the song itself is meant to be an uplifting revival stomper.
3. Shackled and Drawn: Continuing the gospel flavor of the record, this mid tempo track features Bruce in his evangelical preacher guise. It appears the big theme of the record so far is being oppressed and beat down. It's a weird juxtaposition to have such spiritual sounding music with such dark lyrics.
4. Jack Of All Trades: An aching ballad drives the tempo of the record even further. This is the story of a man willing to do anything to get a job and pay the bills (clean storm drains, mow the lawn.) The man if confident his work ethic will see him through, but the coming storm indicates that might not be the case. It marks the first song that would have been a showcase for Clemons, with the traditional sax solo replaced another player.
5. Death To My Hometown: An Irish jig masquerading as a rock song in the vein of THE POGUES, this song is the angry Springsteen in his full force. A song that live will be powerful in it's stripped down basics.
6. This Depression: A plaintive drum beat drives this song as we start to move out of the anger of economic loss and turn to those we love for support. Bruce argues here that the only way we can get through this is with the love and care of others. By the time the guitar solo kicks in, you almost believe him.
7. Wrecking Ball: Springsteen has often cited WOODY GUTHRIE as an influence and here it shows. A folk number that if enhanced with a horns that serves as the core of the record. The protagonist is daring the powers that be to take him down knowing he has the strength to overcome anything. The second half of the song is a triumph of sound.
8. You've Got It: A simple acoustic song (rumor was this record was originally just going to be Springsteen himself playing the songs), explodes into a full bore rock song by the end. One imagines Little Stevie going nuts on this one on stage.
9. Rocky Ground: The inevitable duet with Patti Scialfa shows up at this point. I have never been a fan of her work with the band, but clearly when you are The Boss's wife you get some perks.
10. Land Of Hope And Dreams: This song has been played live for a long time (making it's debut in 1999), but it finally makes it way to recorded form. This has been one of my favorite songs for awhile so I was excited to see it get a proper recording. It doesn't have to thrust the live version does, but it makes for a great juxtaposition to the rest of the darker material on the record. This and the lead track are the clear standouts.
11. We Are Alive: I almost thought it was a U2 song until Springsteen comes in. Another southern gospel track accompanied by a banjo brings the set to a close with references to Martin Luther King's death and other social catastrophes. The sentiment is a nice one of surviving the storms of economic uncertainty and coming out the other side better people.
The final verdict is that it might not be a classic Bruce Springsteen record, and that's okay. Springsteen can experiment with his sound at this stage in his career and we will accept it. Rather than rehash the same sounds he isn't afraid to tinker with gospel, country and other folk sounds. Most of this will never find it's way into the live cannon, but as a work on it's own, it is a quality record worthy of The Boss.