Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen's 17th studio album, isn't the best record of 2012, but it may be the most accurate. It's a portrait of a country veering between ambition and absurdity, love and despair, and occasionally losing its way.
The album has more bells and whistles, literally, than anything Springsteen has done since Born to Run came out in 1975. It's as if he told producer Ron Aniello to pull out every trick in the bag, and then insisted on doing it all again with another bag. There are banjos, marching-band drums, strings, a guest rapper, a tuba, a gospel choir, Alan Lomax field samples, a mariachi band. It's as showy and ostentatiously inclusive as a political convention. But Springsteen has always seemed truest to himself when he's working with some degree of sonic excess, sliding across stadium stages with five backing guitars cranked to eleven. This isn't a gimmick. This is his way of showing us that there's barely a sound big enough to contain his passions.
The first track, the bombastic anthem "We Take Care of Our Own," announces the album's lack of subtlety and its refusal to substitute cynicism for hope. Reagan-era politicians were mocked for misreading "Born in the U.S.A." as jingoism, but in 2012 it made perfect sense for Team Obama — the "Yes we can" progressives — to appropriate the latest Springsteen single as a rally warm-up. When he punctuates a list of grievances with "Wherever this flag's flown / we take care of our own," the implied conclusion is not "...yeah, right!" but "...remember?"
The 11 tracks on Wrecking Ball constitute some of the most self-consciously political work of his career. The restless anger of "Born in the U.S.A." has sharpened and gained focus. In "Death to My Hometown," the problems — the "robber barons" of high finance — are identified by name, and clear solutions are proposed (cue gunshot sound effect).
Yet all this fierce rhetoric comes with a mushy middle. Springsteen, one of the world's great lyricists, allows himself to sing, "You put on your coat / I'll put on my hat / You put out the dog / I'll put out the cat." It's not as bad as 2009's ode to a checkout girl, "Queen of the Supermarket," but it's pretty bad. Lesson learned: Even great orators find themselves bumbling and tongue-tied at times.
More successful is Wrecking Ball's title track, which Springsteen wrote as a rowdy homage to Giants Stadium before its demolition in 2010. Several years later, in the context of this album, the song has gained a certain poetic grace. Far from being a cheap pander to the hometown crowd in Jersey, it's an acknowledgement of the institutions around which communities and identities are built, however prosaic they may seem. In classic Springsteen fashion, it is also an excuse to let loose with a torrent of whoa-oh-ohs and the late Clarence Clemons' glorious sax.
Unemployment, the issue that has dominated the political discourse in recent years, hangs over Wrecking Ball like a grim cloud. Springsteen has always had clear ideas about work. In his younger days, even as he lamented factory closures, he tended to portray a job as the thing you did in order to get to the weekend down the Shore, or the thing that trapped you in your dead-end hometown. In 2012, he's singing a different tune. The struggling narrator of "Shackled and Drawn" believes work isn't just freedom, but salvation: "Let a man work, is that so wrong?" The implication is that to deny a man an honest day's work is to deny him the grace of God. It's a striking tonal shift for Springsteen, and a strong message to send at a time when political careers are tethered to the latest jobs report.
Wrecking Ball comments on the issues of the day, but it more closely mirrors the theater of politics itself. Both Romney and Obama engaged in the hoary tradition of peppering their stump speeches with tales of Real Americans they met on the road, as long as those Real Americans served a convenient purpose. (Who knows what becomes of Debbie, a single workin' mom from Fort Lauderdale, when the motorcade speeds away?)
Springsteen, too, is a master of the carefully deployed character sketch, and has been since his earliest days in Asbury, reporting on his hot summer night with Crazy Janey. One of Wrecking Ball's standout characters is the narrator of "Jack of All Trades," a down-on-his-luck hero who assures his lover that they've survived hard times before, and will continue to do so. It's the kind of survival story speechwriters salivate over, except for an aside in the final verse: "If I had me a gun / I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight." Suddenly the political trope has a voice, one that can't be controlled by a spin room.
As for Springsteen himself, his political profile has never been higher. He stumped for John Kerry in 2004 — motivated, he said, by his distaste for George W. Bush — and did the same for Barack Obama in 2008, but in the months immediately following Wrecking Ball's release in March, he claimed to have no interest in the campaign trail. He changed his mind in the final weeks of election season, barnstorming Obama rallies in Wisconsin, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa. Springsteen's appearances generated so many headlines, you'd be forgiven for thinking the president had a new running mate (and, with all due respect to Mr. Biden, you have to wonder what the electoral margins would have been if he had).
Perhaps Springsteen has finally accepted the fact that he carries as much political symbolism as his songs do. Clearly he's capable of choosing sides, but by virtue of being an artist he is allowed to engage with politics while soaring above the muck. And this, ultimately, is what makes Wrecking Ball both an antidote to the year's political climate as well as a keen reflection of it. The record is angry, but it isn't poisoned by cynicism or its direct descendant, hyper-partisanship. Unlike the candidates who woo him, Springsteen never has to apologize for his beliefs. He never has to contain his temper or modulate his empathy, nor does he have to fall in line behind a flawed party platform.
It's no wonder both President Obama and Gov. Chris Christie are drawn to him. Perhaps they envy Springsteen's freedom. Politicians go to great lengths to convince us that their integrity never wavers; we want to be convinced we're electing heroes. Of course, the story's not that simple. As Wrecking Ball proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, Springsteen is the rarest political animal there is — a man who's true to himself, contradictions and all.
Mary Phillips-Sandy is the editorial producer of Comedy Central's Indecision. She lives in Brooklyn and is working on a novel.