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Album Review

In the Old Testament, God's prophets bore witness against the excesses of greed and injustice that devastated His people.

Bruce Springsteen is not an Old Testament prophet.

But on his 17th studio album, his eviscerating indictment of inequality in 21st-century America makes him sound like one. Eleven tracks lament the fate of the struggling worker, who has been, Springsteen says, mercilessly ground underfoot by the "robber baron" rich.

At times, rage boils over into threats of violence. Elsewhere, despair creeps in like a suffocating fog. Most of the time, though, glimmers of hope remain—hope nourished by hard work, our shared commitment to each other and, finally, a conviction that God is present in our daily toils.

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On "We Take Care of Our Own," Springsteen says that that's exactly the goal: "We take care of own/Wherever this flag's flown/We take care of our own." On "Shackled and Drawn," a weary worker describes life to his son by saying, "Pick up the rock, son, carry it on." And despite his suffering, he finds dignity in his labor: "Freedom, son, is a dirty shirt/The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt/A shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone."

"Jack of All Trades" treads similar territory as a desperate husband tries to convince his wife that hard work will be enough: "I'll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain/I'll mend your roof/I'll take the work that God provides/I'm a jack-of-all-trades, honey, we'll be alright." The song also puts hope in the fact that "The hurricane blows, brings a hard rain/When the blue sky breaks/ … We'll start caring for each other like Jesus said we might."

Indeed, Jesus turns up frequently on Wrecking Ball. The gospel-esque "Rocky Ground" imagines a shepherd gathering lost sheep and alludes to other biblical images as well. "Forty days and nights of rain have washed this land," we hear, "Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand/Find your flock, get them to higher ground/The floodwater's rising, we're Canaan bound." Gospel singer Michelle Moore raps, "You use your muscle and your mind, and you pray your best/That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest."

"Well, I will provide for you and stand by your side," a man tells his wife on "Land of Hopes and Dreams," "You'll need a good companion now for this part of the ride." And the balance of the track talks metaphorically about a train heading toward a better afterlife: "Big wheels roll through the fields where sunlight streams/Meet me in a land of hopes and dreams/ … Well, this train carries saints and sinners/This train carries losers and winners/This train carries whores and gamblers/This train carries lost souls/ … I said this train carries brokenhearted/This train, thieves and sweet souls departed/This train carries fools and kings, Lord/This train, all aboard."

How did these diverse folks climb on the same heaven-bound express? Springsteen hints, "Faith will be rewarded/ … You don't need no ticket/You just get onboard/ … You just thank the Lord."

While its lyrics get a little six-feet-under earthworm creepy at times, "We Are Alive" links "a cross up yonder up on Calvary Hill" to an afterlife in which "souls will rise to carry the fire and light the spark/To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart."

Objectionable Content

Several times, Bruce's distaste for the newly infamous 1% crosses over into malevolent territory as he imagines bringing murder into the mix. The longsuffering worker on "Jack of All Trades" certainly harbors that fantasy: "So you take what you've got and you learn to make do/You take the old, you make it new/If I had me a gun, I'd find the b‑‑tards and shoot 'em on sight." And a vengeance-minded man on "Easy Money" rages, "I got a Smith & Wesson .38/I got a hellfire burning and I got me a taste/Got me a date on the far shore where it's bright and sunny/I'm going out on the town tonight looking for easy money."

"Death to My Hometown" relishes the thought of eternal suffering for the predatory rich with, "Send the robber barons straight to hell."

"Wrecking Ball" includes a mildly crass term for a portion of the male anatomy ("balls").

Summary Advisory

Bruce Springsteen, who first burst onto the music scene nearly 40 years ago, has built his storied career on emotional anthems to the working man. And that theme's never been more pointed than it is on Wrecking Ball, as this original Jersey boy tirelessly belts out songs full of desperation and retaliation but also faith and hope.

Three songs wish death on the rich. And while I suspect Bruce's violent venting isn't meant to be taken literally, talk about .38s and going out in the blaze of hellfire "glory" can't be completely dismissed.

Hear that loud and clear before I continue.

The rest of the tracks salute the dignity and the dogged, peaceful, efforts of the anonymous everyman—the man who gets up every day and faithfully puts his shoulder to the plow. Whether or not he knows what the final outcome will be.

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March 6, 2012

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Adam R. Holz

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