Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball

2012 sees the welcome return of that patron saint of American rock, Bruce Springsteen. A summer world tour will follow the release of his 17th studio album Wrecking Ball – which sees Springsteen fall back on his tried and tested American themes – this time applied to the recent experiences of the banking crisis, overseas wars, and domestic political turmoil – but with much the same overriding sentiments.

Wrecking Ball has been put on a par with Born To Run (1975), Nebraska (1982) and Born In The U.S.A. (1984) – not just classic Springsteen albums, but some of the greatest records in modern music. These are frighteningly high standards, and I knew I had to gear up for my first listen. I bought the album on the Monday it was released, but across a busy week I declined to play it, lest I should be unable to hear it all at once. But, come Sunday morning I had nothing to do, and with the sun shining brightly, I grabbed my iPod and took off…

The opening track, and lead single ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’ starts with a reflection on the kind of driving rock arrangement that typifies Springsteen’s music, and the same kind of semi-ironic message that made Born In The U.S.A so misunderstood. So, just in case you didn’t get it in 1984 – the idea is that America is full of ideals that are always reiterated but not always maintained. Get the picture? You may continue…

The title track ‘Wrecking Ball’ was written as a response to the demolition of Giants Stadium, but speaks to the political issues that come with the recession also. The destruction of the stadium will never erase its former glories, and that becomes a metaphor for his native New Jersey also. Despite the absence of war in the average towns and cities of America, ‘Death To My Hometown’ implies that the actions of the bankers on Wall Street (labelled ‘fat cats’ and ‘bastards’), have been just as destructive.

But it’s in ‘Jack Of All Trades’ that Springsteen really does his theme justice. With a simple piano accompaniment (resembling ‘O Holy Night’) he takes on the voice of the average middle-American, recalling his haunting acoustic album Nebraska. He laments being made redundant by the economic recession, but survives nonetheless by doing odd jobs that crop up. “I take the work that God provides/I’m a Jack of all trades/Honey we’ll be alright.” And there’s no doubt as to who’s to blame for it: “The banker man grows fat/Working man grows thin/It’s all happened before/And it’ll happen again.” Ever since he started telling the stories of blue collar working life in his early 1970s records, Springsteen is guaranteed to stand up for the everyman – and here it is done with such heartbreaking empathy, you will believe his words, and feel his imagined pain.

The final three tracks are simplistic reflections on the American journey. The refrain of ‘Rocky Ground’ is repeated for minutes on end – “We’ve been travelling over rocky ground, rocky ground”. The gospel choir, and featured vocalist Michelle Moore, directs the sentiment to the African-American experience, but Springsteen’s own voice recalls the various struggles he’s narrated throughout his career. ‘Land Of Hope and Dreams’ features a poignant moment – the only posthumous appearance of Clarence Clemons on saxophone, cut from a live recording before his untimely death last year. Finally, ‘We Are Alive’ is a rousing finale (sounding a bit like ‘Ring Of Fire’), celebrating those who died for the country – but the sentiment of the song is that nothing has been lost in vain, for everyone lives on in the spirit of the great nation that is the US of A.

One of the things I love about Springsteen is how he incorporates different American musical styles into his work. Tracks like ‘Easy Money’ and ‘Shackled and Drawn’ are fusions of blues and country, with a few Irish fiddles and tin whistles thrown in for good measure.  Then there’s the gospel choir and the semi-spoken rap on the beautiful ‘Rocky Ground’ which gives the record a bit of soul. There’s a bit of everything here if you listen close enough, though they blend so well together under Springsteen’s unmistakable artistry, you’d hardly notice it. They sound like shindigs in oversized bars and barns rather than the stadium sounds associated with The Boss in the past. There’s a wider message of universality delivered through this. America isn’t just a country of white guys and rock music – it’s a country of many colours and sounds, but they all live under the same flag. Be in no doubt, this is classic Springsteen, and 5 star stuff. I’ll be going out on that walk again…

Bruce Springsteen will tour the UK this summer; at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light, Manchester’s Etihad Stadium, Isle Of Wight Festival in June and London Hard Rock Calling in July.


Lana Del Rey – Born To Die

I first encountered Lana del Rey in an interview she gave for Attitude magazine in August 2011. This was still a few months before her edgy promo for ‘Video Games’ went viral on YouTube, and yet the myths about who she really is were already being concocted on the Internet. You’ll have heard most of it by now. She called herself ‘the gangsta Nancy Sinatra’, and 158,000 online articles later, she’s lived to regret it. As soon as her acclaimed underground hit went mainstream she was touted as a record company manufacture. And, after some shambolic performances on TV – notably on Saturday Night Live – it was questioned whether she could actually sing at all.

So what do we know? Born as plain old Lizzy Grant, a failed attempt at stardom a few years ago led her back to the drawing board where she created Lana Del Rey. She appears as a combination of Mad Men’s Betty Draper, and some weird David Lynch character – a plausible comparison when you consider her hometown is Lake Placid, New York – population 2,368. Looking every bit the American beauty queen (collagen lips included), she’s just as concerned with the dark underbelly of that ideal. She’s got the look and the ideas, but does the music back them up?

The mantra for the album appears to have been a simple one: sultry laments of doomed love, to the sound of a ‘boom, bo-tish’ drum loop and a string section, with an isolated guitar playing the occasional Twin Peaks twang. It sounds simple – but whether you brand her a good singer or not, it’s difficult not to be drawn in when her voice first plays out on the title track, with a dullness akin to a low violin phrase: “Feet don’t fail me now”. Indeed her entire style is summed up in ‘Born To Die’. She knows the limitations of her voice and she plays to it. The climactic refrain of the song (“Come and take a walk on the wild side…”), which Adele might belt out, is delivered as a semi-whisper here – somewhere between Marilyn and Jessica Rabbit. As you do.

The songs no doubt owe a lot to Justin Parker – her co-writer on most of the tracks. You can’t argue with choruses like ‘Video Games’ and ‘National Anthem’. Every hummable hook is perfectly constructed to sound like we’ve heard it a hundred times before, and yet the production by Emile Haynie makes the retro arrangements sound fresh. Her thematic concerns are about falling in love – truly, madly, even fatally. She speaks of bad guys and girls, crowns herself the Queen of Coney Island, and compares herself to ‘Carmen’ and ‘Lolita’ on the respectively titled tracks. Her lyrics imply she’s as fame hungry as that other great incarnation of our times, Lady Gaga – although her dour demeanour doesn’t quite match that of Mother Monster. At times she sounds bored – and both her voice and her concept may appear predictable and repetitious to some. Arguably 15 tracks on the deluxe edition is a bit of a stretch – but despite its musical and lyrical repetition, you won’t be darting to switch it off after the first 5. The songs are like different items in a new fashion collection – you get the overall idea quite quickly, but it’s still nice to look at the rest.

I can’t help but applaud Del Rey for moulding a concept, and so spectacularly embodying it, ensuring her place in public interest and musical merit. I almost didn’t bother to review Born To Die, because it’s been a few weeks since it hit the charts, but the record keeps coming back to make me think, and I return to listen to it more than any of my other recent purchases . So, as much as the buzz around Lana Del Rey is still sounding, for one reason or another, it is justified.

Lana Del Rey plays Lovebox on June 17th, and Radio 1’s Hackney Weekend on June 22nd.