Wrecking Ball is the most despairing, confrontational and musically turbulent album Bruce Springsteen has ever made. He is angry and accusing in these songs, to the point of exhaustion, with grave reason. The America here is a scorched earth: razed by profiteers, and suffering a shameful erosion in truly democratic values and national charity. The surrender running through the chain-gang march and Springsteen’s muddy-river growl in “Shackled and Drawn”; the double meaning loaded into the ballad “This Depression”; the reproach driving “We Take Care of Our Own,” a song so obviously about abandoned ideals and mutual blame that no candidate would dare touch it: This is darkness gone way past the edge of town, to the heart of the republic.
Springsteen has been here before, a lot. He drew from his own father’s working life for the numbed spirits on the assembly line in 1978’s “Factory.” But the diminished dreams haunting The River and the cycles of hunger and violence in “The Ghost of Tom Joad” always came with light: a stubborn faith in American honor and our better natures. Even The Rising, Springsteen’s response to the crushing anguish and moral challenges of 9/11, was written and played to heal and unify, a masterful balance of mourning and the guitar-army backbone of the E Street Band.