New sounds, familiar themes on Springsteen’s ‘Wrecking Ball’

Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball’’ does not feature the E Street Band, but it does offer a full band sound as well as some loops and vocal samples.


Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball’’ does not feature the E Street Band, but it does offer a full band sound as well as some loops and vocal samples.

“Wrecking Ball,’’ Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, out Tuesday, may not have been recorded with the E Street Band - although it does include two appearances from late E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons - but that doesn’t mean the veteran rocker is going it alone.

A phalanx of back-up singers, horn players, steel guitarists, drummers and percussionists, and friends (like Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine) contribute to Springsteen’s many-layered, genre-blurring, and often melancholy vision.


Springsteen is hardly lost in the mix - he is the Boss, after all. But that preponderance of voices (which also includes vocal samples from other sources) as well some chillier recording touches introduced by producer Ron Aniello (loops and rhythm tracks common in top 40, but slightly jarring on a Springsteen album) do add a layer of distance to the proceedings.

But perhaps that makes sense; so much of what Springsteen is singing about on “Wrecking Ball’’ is the widening fissures in society - between economic classes, political parties, friends, communities, lovers, and people who have fallen on hard times and their faith. (It also addresses the tightening deadlines of mortality as well.)

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As is often the case, Springsteen reflects on what is going on now in both the political and personal realms, and the results can be dark. When the lights go out, it’s just the three of us: Bruce, his listeners, and all that stuff we’re so scared of.

There is a sense of weary resignation as bankers get fat and workers tighten their belts on the pensive, wintry piano ballad “Jack of All Trades’’; as “robber barons’’ wreak warlike devastation on the world-beat/folk mash-up “Death to My Hometown’’; as a believer - in love, in a higher power, in himself, whichever fits - scrambles for spiritual purchase on shaky ground in the forlorn “This Depression.’’

“Rocky Ground’’ covers similar emotional terrain - it’s one of two songs to feature gospel vocalist Michelle Moore - and is emblematic of the sonic change-ups that dot the album. While accordions, fiddles, acoustic guitars, and human voices are prominent - befitting the songs’ back porch country, folk, and blues vibe - canned clap tracks, woozy keyboards, and whirring sound effects sometimes sit uncomfortably alongside them.


This is a Springsteen album though, so there is hope. It comes in the form of blue skies after a hard rain on “Jack of All Trades,’’ in the poignant idea of those who’ve passed helping us continue to thrive on “We Are Alive,’’ in the sexy swagger of “You’ve Got It,’’ and in the solo by Clemons on “Land of Hope and Dreams,’’ which wafts up to reach for the glory of which his boss sings is waiting for us all.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at
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