Bruce Springsteen's transition from acidic everyman to sappy middle-class mediator has a clear demarcation point, a moment that at the time seemed like a career highlight. Nearly a year after 9/11, Springsteen released The Rising, a celebratory effort intended to bring a fractured nation together. And though such unity seemed like a possibility in the months after the tragedy, America became more divided than ever, riven by 10 years of war, social dispute, and economic crises. Yet Springsteen has stuck with it, spending the majority of his last five albums trying to act as a crooning peacemaker.
This arbitration has taken the form of a broad shift in his usual persona, from vocal critic of the system to ardent defender of its possibilities. He's insistently called on the elusive specter of an imaginary America, a place where the empowered masses band together to confront evil of all kinds. On Wrecking Ball, attempts to evoke such a condition once again drive him into borderline jingoistic territory. Witness opener "We Take Care of Our Own," which strives for a message of harmony, but instead sounds like the kind of renegade haughtiness more commonly found in modern country, preferring down-home, small-government handling of problems to more balanced mediation. Much of the album is inflected with this straightforward, faux-rousing style, resulting in something far more rudimentary than one might expect from the man behind Born in the U.S.A., an album that endorsed patriotic myths while also poking at their inherent fallacies.
This pose is so awkward because Springsteen has historically never been a voice of unity. As romantic and juvenile as his '70s and '80s narratives may have been, they were usually tinged with a grim sense of realism, placing personal strength and brotherhood as secondary to the overwhelming forces that threatened them. Now everything is rose-colored, and the equation seems to have flipped. As songs like "Jack of All Trades" and "We Are Alive" seem to say, you can keep a good man down, but he won't stay down forever; even the dead get a chance to incite and inspire. This shift seems inconsequential, but the distinction is important. Instead of dredging up stories of people who've fallen through the cracks, Springsteen now talks down to them in their holes, promising that everything will be all right, whispering bedtime stories to a wounded nation.
This would all come off as even more insulting were Springsteen not his signature charming self, with a soothing baritone that's grown more dusty and plaintive. Despite its many faults, Wrecking Ball remains better than 2009's Working on a Dream because it's more musically vigorous, full of solos and sing-alongs, closer to his '70s aesthetic than the anemic output of recent years. "Swallowed Up" is mordant, mysterious, and a little scary—the kind of mature material the album needs more of. There's also the final sax work from the late Clarence Clemons that tears a hole in the otherwise dour "Land of Hope and Dreams." Even the title track works up a good deal of sweat with its pulsing organ, "I've Been Working on the Railroad" riff, and charging horns, ending with a crescendo that's ultimately convincing, even if it is an Arcade Fire rip-off.
But it takes only a little analysis of the lyrics of that song to realize how flimsy all the bombast is. Written from the perspective of a demolished stadium, it's broad and disappointingly simple, wallowing in cheap nostalgia and chummy good feelings. There are other, lesser problems, which in the grand scheme of things almost don't seem worth mentioning: the rap verse on "Rocky Ground," which leads into a hammy choir passage; the egregious Sam Cooke sample on "Land of Hope and Dreams"; the tin whistle, bagpipes, and general sense of forced camaraderie on "Death to My Hometown" that poison an otherwise lucid track with more canned populism.
In determining exactly what went wrong here, it's useful to compare Wrecking Ball with Neil Young's Living with War, a similarly ungraceful album with an equally heavy list of offenses. But Young's album was generally a success because it came armed with plenty of anger, direct targets for those feelings, and a strong sense of purpose, hardly ever resorting to cloying nationalism. When it did, using a chorus of "America the Beautiful" as its last track, it was as catharsis after so much furious doomsaying. Springsteen, on the other hand, seems more concerned with overtures toward harmony than actual dissent, a newfound wishy-washiness that leaves him sounding entirely defanged.