Bruce Springsteen Dressed Up As You: Costumes At the Wrecking Ball
March 7, 2012 at 1:29 pm, by Jonah Rank
As I ambled along the streets of this ancient-yet-modern city, I took in the sights of kids dressed as pirates, Superman, Disney princesses, and what-have-you. Simultaneously, I was listening to a Bruce Springsteen record painted with tinges of gospel, folk, mariachi, hip-hop, and other genres.
Does this seem normal to you?
To be fair, I could have predicted the Purim costumes.
But I highly doubt that Springsteen would have believed anyone in 1975 had he been told that 2012 would see the release of his first song with a rap verse. Yet, yesterday, Wrecking Ball hit stores, and “Rocky Ground” features Michelle Moore busting a few rhymes penned by Bruce himself.
I was not expecting Bruce to drop by Jerusalem in costume like this, but I am left feeling very inspired by this record.
In January, it was widely reported (anonymously) that the then-untitled 24th album would be Bruce’s “angriest yet,” focusing on the economic injustice in the United States. And the reports were hardly deceptive.
Bruce’s latest tries to speak for the American people. Since we Americans are pretty diverse, Bruce’s task is no easy feat. After all, he’s only one person.
That being said, Americans might have this much in common: we all know that something in the country’s not working right.
Opening with “We Take Care Of Our Own,” Bruce does not yet point fingers, and he does not pull any sonic surprises on us. He does however remind us that we’ve got an obligation to take care of each other.
With “Easy Money,” Bruce brings in a little Celtic fiddling and a gospel choir (the first of several appearances). The Boss tells us that, in this time when money’s hard to come by, he’s got a devious plan (and a gun–probably not a safe idea).
Bruce next tells us he’s “Shackled and Drawn” (backed by more Irish-American sounds). The Boss is looking for work; this clean-clothed American knows that you’ve got to toil to be truly free (“freedom… is a dirty shirt”).
With subtle electronica noises and subtle electronic drums backing up the piano ballad “Jack of All Trades,” Bruce plays a “working man grow[ing] thin” while “the banker man grows fat.” Our multi-talented handyman is very capable and optimistic, saying “We’ll be all right.” In fact, we’ll have nothing too worry about. “If I had me a gun,” he tells us, “I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.” (Thank God these are just costumes, Bruce! Right?)
I’m not sure that “Death To My Hometown” will override the nostalgia we hold for “We Will Rock You,” but this new anthem somehow ones up Queen‘s anthemic beat. Singing with a slightly Irish accent (plus pennywhistle and violin in the background), Bruce tells the “boys” to “Get yourself a song to sing / And sing it ’til you’re done” to a melody you might hear in an Irish pub. (Ireland should be proud of this album.)
Bruce asks for a lover’s heart to get him through “This Depression” as he sings over backwards drum loops, synth pads, and a few odd time signatures. Musically, the track sounds like something you might hear when Brian Eno collaborates with anyone (Coldplay, Paul Simon, U2, etc.).
An accordion and a timbre of (electronic?) horns at hand, the title track calls upon the upper class who let “champions come and go” just as “hard times come, and hard times go.” “Bring on your wrecking ball,” Bruce teases those who are willing to ruin the memories of the working-class American.
“You’ve Got It” is the sort of love song you could imagine popping up at any decade of the Boss’s career. Yet the production is much more sophisticated. A live horn section backs Sprinsteen up in a seductive R&B sort of way.
“Rocky Ground” may be the most daring and experimental of the Wrecking Ball costumes. Aside from Bruce’s own references to Jesus in the lyrics (my feeling: why shouldn’t devout Christians get their portion on an album that tries to speak for the entire American people?), the track samples “I’m a Soldier In the Army of the Lord” (recorded in 1942 Mississippi). Over a gospel background, Moore performs the famous (notorious?) rap in a way that–to me at least–feels natural and does not actually destroy Springsteen’s integrity. The vocal delivery and the syntax of the rap resemble the “clean” rap music you might have heard on the radio in the 80s and the 90s. Springsteen does not go over the top with this costume. He could have gone for grills and other bling, but this album is far too honest for some heavy-handed costume. Bruce knows exactly what he’s doing here.
Prominently featuring a sax solo from Clarence Clemons, whose passing last year renders this track one of his last recordings (a tribute to Clemons appears in the digital liner notes), “The Land of Hope and Dreams” invites the “people” to hop onto a train leading to a place of no promises: only hopes and dreams. This track might be the best reflection of the Bruce we’ve always known.
The closing track of the physical disc, “We Are Alive” unites the sounds of a carnival and a mariachi band with some folky acoustic guitar, mandolin and banjo–with the makings of a foot-stomping cowboy ‘thentic hoedown looming in the background.
“Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale),” Bruce references the Book of Jonah (hey, that’s me!), and he sings a song from the depths of a depression. Though we trusted in God that “the righteous in the world will prevail,” Springsteen concludes the first of two bonus tracks, observing that “We’ve been swallowed up.” This sparse soundscape is not a fist-pumping anthem that would ever earn the Boss his claim to fame decades ago.
Finally, celebrating those rumors and that naivety that brought so many to the USA, “American Land” is another ditty resembling an Irish drinking song with a whole lotta rock. “The blacks, the Irish, the Italians, the Germans, and the Jews: / They come across the water a thousand miles from home / With nothing in their bellies but the fire down below.” All these folks come with the same illusion: “There’s treasure for the taking, for any hard working man / Who will make his home in the American land.”
Speaking for the American people ain’t easy. There’s a lot to say, and there are a lot of voices. The majority’s voice of rock and roll anthems might not be the language that speaks to the elderly Irishman in the pub. Nor is the E Street Band‘s glockenspiel particularly apt for the next big hip-hop hit, or even the hip-hop hits of the 80s or 90s. And Steve Van Zandt‘s wild guitar solos will not resonate with the aficionados of a mariachi band.
As I walked around Jerusalem yesterday, surrounded by pirates, princesses and Superman (who is much shorter than me, and about half my age, if that kid’s costume was accurate), I was enveloped in a world of costumes.
When I think about it, it is very unlikely that Columbia Records told Bruce that he should release Wrecking Ball just in time for Purim, but I also can’t think of a more appropriate time on the Jewish calendar for the album to find its way onto my iPod.
Technically, Jews are not obligated to wear costumes on Purim. Halakhah makes no such demand. But costumes have always been part of my Purim celebration. Every year, I look forward to seeing my friends’ and family’s costumes, and I always try to think of a costume that makes sense.
History tells us that dressing up on Purim is probably not even a Jewish custom originally. Jews probably borrowed the costume custom from the Carnival festivities of their Christian neighbors; after all, Carnival and Purim would usually fall around the same time of year.
In a way, Bruce and the Jews both thought of wearing these costumes for the same reason: to become part of a larger community.
When we choose costumes well, we don’t wear a costume that actually offends our own sensibilities. We choose to wear something that confirms that we know the people and trends around us.
Bruce has no interest in being Irish, and most kids don’t really want to be pirates. (Looting and marauding are big commitments.) Costumes are a way for us to show that we appreciate whatever we dress up as: that our lives are enriched by our surroundings.
And it’s a fun way to send the message.
Because it’s not a requirement, and occasionally I don’t feel like it, dressing up for Purim doesn’t always sound as fun to me as it did when I was younger.
But once I put on the costume, it’s fun.
Getting back to Bruce though…
Did he need to put on costumes for Wrecking Ball? Of course not. The whole CD could have been E Street-style rock anthems like “We Take Care Of Our Own,” and the album could have been a good album even without all those Irish sounds, those Mexican sounds, those gospel sounds, those hip-hop sounds, etc….
But would the album have been able to reflect an America larger than Bruce himself? Not to the extent that it does. And it certainly wouldn’t be as fun.
Part of the fun of Wrecking Ball is the costumes. Can Bruce pull of the Celtic thing? How about the mariachi? How about hip-hop?
The cool thing is: Bruce usually can.
Bruce trying something new and so out of the ordinary tells us he knows how to be more than just the artist we already know he is. Trying something new and out of the ordinary tells us that he knows how to imitate the people around him. Going for something new and out of the ordinary this tells us that Bruce actually knows something about us.
Some reviews of Wrecking Ball say that the rap verse in “Rocky Ground” is unnecessary. Some say that it’s “pretty good,” often noting this is the first time this 62-year white guy is trying rap music.
Angry as Wrecking Ball is, it’s also a lot of fun.
I hope that when I’m 62 I love costumes as much as Bruce. Purim is too fun to miss.
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