Tuesday, March 6, 2012


It's Springsteen-by-the-numbers, with a little bit of this and a bit of that, almost like a sampler of his last couple of decades worth of music.  There's a touch of Devils and Dust, a lot of Seeger Sessions, a smattering of latter-day E Street, and lots of borrowing, from gospel, hip-hop, Mexicali and even Morricone.  The themes are the awfully familiar, too.  He's singing from a recession-era country, with broken and beaten people struggling to beat the forces pitted unfairly against them.

It's all getting a little weary, actually.   The early hype (Springsteen is one of the few that still gets big hype, such as TV commercials and well-circulated quotes about the album) is that this is his vision of today, from a land struggling.  Somebody's spreading the line that it's a return to Born In The U.S.A. anger and anthems.  I can't get behind that one.  If it is his idea of raising the nation in down times, he's doing it by repeating old tricks, platitudes and cliches.

Much of the album is written in a style reminiscent of the Seeger Sessions lyrics, the album of classic folk Springsteen made last decade.  While those songs were covers, here he's written his own, cobbling together shop-worn lines and themes.  Shackled And Drawn uses old language, and old themes:  "What's a poor boy to do but keep carrying on?"  Jack Of All Trades imagines the old displaced Depression-era worker recurring today.  Land Of Hopes And Dreams is a complete and acknowledged lift of both This Train Is Bound For Glory and People Get Ready.

That last song was a surprise;  It's a decade old, used to close the encore during the 1999-2000 E Street Band reunion tour, and found in a live version on the CD/DVD Live In New York City.  The title cut is no spring chicken either, having been written and performed for the final shows at Giants Stadium in 2009 before it was torn down.  They do fit thematically, and as both feature the final blows of Clarence Clemons on a Springsteen disc, there's some sentimental value too.  They also happen to be the best cuts on the disc, anthemic and good examples of what he does best.

What he doesn't do well is move out of his zone.  Good lord, I'm all for artists moving forward, expanding their horizons, doing what they want to, but Springsteen always tries too hard to re-imagine himself.  His dust bowl persona of The Ghost Of Tom Joad and Devils And Dirt has wrecked most of his non-E Street work, with the affected Okie voice showing up again here.  His love of Irish mayhem is fine when warranted, but is completely out of place here, turning Death To My Hometown into a party, when what he really wants to do is skewer the corporate greed-heads shutting down "our factories". 

On and on come the non-Bruce moments;  sampled preachers, a hip-hop guest spot, buddy Tom Morello's guitar solos, gospel choirs.  It's all too much.  It's like he's afraid to be himself.  Worst of all, if this is in answer to the Occupy Movement, the political world of 2011, and his own anger, he, for once has little to say once you get down to it.  In the past, from Thunder Road to The Rising, he's at least offered hope and strength in family and friends.  And in chronicling darker times, such as The River and Darkness On The Edge Of Town, he gave a voice to others' pain.  All you get here is "There's a new day comin'", and "Banker man grows fat, working man grows thin."  In 2012, Springsteen seems as lost as the rest of us.

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