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what i watched last week

another look at wrecking ball

Several weeks ago, I wrote my thoughts about Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen’s latest album:

The album sounded good to me from the first listen. After a few weeks, some songs stand out more than others, and the rush of initial enjoyment has subsided, so that I think of it on the level of The Rising (which is no insult). I can also imagine some good concert performances of these songs, and I hope he plays them.

New Bruce albums are evaluated in at least three different ways. The first is the most general: is it any good? The second is contextual: how does it compare to his other albums? And finally, there’s the angle that is hardest to explain if you haven’t been there: how do the songs play in concert? It’s not a knock on Bruce Springsteen to say that much of his work is best heard live … it’s not that the albums are poor, it’s that he is arguably the best live performer in the music’s history, so each listen to a new album carries with it that “will it be good live” subtext. This has always been true. “Prove It All Night” was a decent track on Darkness on the Edge of Town, but in concert, it was monumental, so the Darkness version was secondary from the first time we heard it live (while those who didn’t go to the concerts had to wait until 2001 before a live version was released).

Obviously, I can’t speak specifically to the live quality of the new songs, since I won’t see him for a couple of days. But I can address the first two questions. Is it any good? Yes. How good? Well, Christgau isn’t Bruce’s biggest fan, and he gave the album an A-, only the second such grade since Tunnel of Love got an A back in 1987. (He also liked Devils and Dust.) If we trust Metacritic, his albums tend to get “generally favorable reviews”, but, tellingly, Metacritic doesn’t include the post-Rising albums Magic and Working on a Dream.

Which leads to the second question, putting Wrecking Ball in the context of Bruce’s entire career. I think I had it right when I said it was on the level of The Rising: a handful of very good songs, nothing awful or even forgettable (the biggest complaint I have about the other 21st-century albums). When I saw Bruce in 2009 on the Working on a Dream tour, only two years after the release of Magic, he played only one song from that album. And while I might have missed one or two, as far as I can tell, in 15+ shows on the current tour, he hasn’t played a single song from Working on a Dream. Since concerts are where he best expresses his art, these absences are telling. (On the other hand, it’s like pulling teeth to get anything from Tunnel of Love out of him, and that’s one of his finest albums. Hey Bruce, think of this as my “Request Sign”: “Valentine’s Day”. OK, my real request is “Back in Your Arms”.)

And I think Wrecking Ball is good enough that we’ll still be hearing it as long as Bruce can get his aging ass on the stage, just as he still performs “My City of Ruins” and “Lonesome Day” and “The Rising” and even, ferchrissake, “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”. Picks to click: “Land of Hope and Dreams”, “Jack of All Trades”, and, in concert (as long as Patti is there), “Easy Money”.

Or maybe I’m just caught up in the moment. I’ll get back to you after Tuesday night.


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