If you read my top 10 albums of 2012 list, you know that I was quite a fan of Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball. I had it at #2, and I praised both Springsteen's vitriolic lyrics, and his strong sense of melody, which lead to, in my opinion, one of the best albums he's ever made.
Of course, I wasn't the only one who enjoyed the record. It topped Rolling Stone's list, which for many was just another nail in the coffin of one of music's oldest magazines. Springsteen's album was great, but it probably seemed all-too-typical for RS to give the top prize to a guy in his 60s, rather than a cutting edge artist. Unfortunately for Springsteen (and for RS), the honor seemed to say more about how out-of-touch Rolling Stone is than what a wonderful album Wrecking Ball is.
That may have been the inspiration for a recent post on the blog Lawyers, Guns, And Money entitled "Against Springsteen." The article seems to make the point that Rolling Stone only gave Springsteen the album of the year honor because the liberal platitudes he touches on in Wrecking Ball match with the editors' own views, and that Springsteen's work has declined considerably over the years, with his new political screeds lacking the punch of his 70s and 80s work.
This was an interesting argument, and the article is very well-written, but the basis for its argument is rather short-sighted. The author simply compares two new Springsteen songs to one older one. He seems to think that the anti-rich rhetoric on "Shackled And Drawn," and "We Take Care Of Our Own" is too empty and hollow compared to the complexities of Springsteen's classic 1980 single "The River." To be sure, "The River" is one of Springsteen's best songs. The tale of a young coupled doomed a miserable, disappointing working class life after an unplanned pregnancy is powerful, and one of his meditations on how people can become victims of circumstance.
With that said, I think the new ones hold up to the classics pretty well. To make his argument, the author cherry picks individual lyrics from songs, while not saying much about the complete picture. Sure, a line like "we needed help, the cavalry stayed home" doesn't seem particularly powerful taken by itself, but when part of a larger argument about America's lack of compassion for its poorest citizens, it packs quite a punch. When Springsteen sings "where's the promise from see to shining sea" towards the end of "We Take Care Of Our Own," it's hard to not feel something.
In praising "The River," the author dissects each individual line, praising the brilliance of them all, and giving a fairly comprehensive overview of the song. When talking about the new tunes, he simply states the lyrics he doesn't like, and avoids talking about the rest. The thing is, these songs are just as deep as "The River" (no pun intended). He dislikes the new ones for stating a political view explicitly, while "The River" simply described a difficult situation caused by a flawed economy created by corporate greed.
He states that "The River" is a superior song because it simply gives you the situation, and allows you to draw your own conclusions about whose fault it is. This is a reasonable argument, but I think the reason for this change is not the decline in Springsteen's lyrics, but rather, the decline of the American political system. There have always been politicians who didn't care about the poor, but they have never been so naked in their contempt as they are today. The glad handing and backscratching on Capitol Hill is much easier to see than it was in 1980, partly because of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, but also because many in power just don't care who knows how they really feel. This shift has lead to a shift in Springsteen's tone. Rather than simply mourn the plight of the poor, he's unafraid to point fingers at the greed and corruption responsible for their circumstance. It's not hard to see why he went this way; there's no need to remind us how many people are struggling to get by when the number of people in that position goes up every year.
Springsteen still represents the working man, but it's a different kind of working man; one who watches the news, reads the paper, and is more familiar with the corrupt politicians who claim to offer help, only to stab them further in the back. Springsteen's lyrics are as vital as ever, and at a time when greed is rampant, he rightfully puts the bastards responsible for it in their place. Springsteen didn't get worse; America did, and it's not his fault that his lyrics reflect that.