"Wrecking Ball," Bruce Springsteen (Columbia)
Bruce Springsteen has always seemed like the conscience of the working class. At his best, he's a voice for people who believe in the American Dream even as they see it slipping away. While he started out writing about being a small-town kid dreaming about breaking out with a fast car and plans to start a rock band, his songs have grown up as he has. He became less Mitch Ryder and more Woody Guthrie and even Merle Haggard.
Springsteen arguably hit his peak with 1987's "Tunnel of Love," the introspective disc that followed up the mega-hit "Born in the U.S.A," the album that truly turned Springsteen into a superstar.
In the 25 years since, Springsteen has wrestled between being a big-rock-arena persona and humble songwriter. He's been best when he's gravitated toward the latter ("The Ghost of Tom Joad," "Devils and Dust"), but most acclaimed when he went big ("The Rising").
But like on "The Rising," "Wrecking Ball" is undone by its urgency, earnestness and overproduction. Songs that might work well with simple arrangements are instead delivered with choirs, thick brass, samples of gospel songs, and an attitude of no-aural space unfilled. But, more importantly, Springsteen seems to want so badly to cheer us up and rally the faithful that he neglects to tap that sometimes dark place where his best work comes from.
Occasionally the tunes work. The opening cut and first single "We Take Care of Our Own" is appropriately anthemic and the disc's closer "We Are Alive," with its string band accompaniment (until it, too, goes big) and its images of death and revival stands out from the pack.
It's good to have Springsteen rooting for us and still feeling like he is still one of us, but he serves us best when he focuses on his art more than his good intentions.
"Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables," Todd Snider (Aimless)
Let's just admit it. Most topical songs created in the past 40 years have been pretty bad. When songwriters decide they have an important political statement to make their art usually takes a backseat and the songs usually stink. There are a few exceptions — Bruce Springsteen on a good day, Ry Cooder recently and James McMurtry and Todd Snider on a pretty regular basis. Snider is the one, though, who recognizes that it's good to deliver a message with a laugh attached.
On "Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables" Snider addresses greed, the Occupy Movement, crooked bankers and unemployment, but not with an angry waving finger or a fist, but with a wink.
Opening with a story about God being invented to keep the have-nots from hauling off and killing the have-a-lots, Snider muses on the future with the thought "... to think that we would still need religion to keep the poor from killing the rich?" Immediately afterwards, he relates the stories of a high school teacher losing his pension in the financial crisis and does a pretty good job of explaining just how it happened concluding with the chorus "good things happen to bad people, bad people."
And in "Precious Little Miracles" Snider facetiously sings from the perspective of a guy whose dismissal of youth has more to do with their saggy pants than their despair over their financial future.
"... kids with their pants around their hip-bones, who wears their pants like that? Come here kid, let me hitch up your britches and while we're at it, let's fix up that hair!"
And, among the big topics, is a simple break-up song that's a sing-a-long for the romantic survivor bouncing along with "This is the last time, the very last time, you're going to break my heart."
At seven songs, "Agnostic Hymns" is short, but it's lovable in its brevity and leaves you anxious to hear more.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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