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Today’s Bruce Springsteen is a Pale Imitation of the Real Thing

Before Bruce Springsteen put together the first incarnation of the E Street Band, forty years ago, he had a scrappy little bar band called Steel Mill, which played at my friend Doug Mendini’s eighth-grade graduation party. Like Springsteen, Doug and I were both literary-minded products of New Jersey factory towns (I worked for the summer before my first year of college in a steel foundry, on the late shift with my father), and a tenuous early sense of kinship with Springsteen has given me a weakness for his work. Doug, after eighth grade, went on to become a fine poet and playwright; I took up nonfiction; and Springsteen found a way to bring his adolescent ambition to be “a author” (as he later recalled his youth in the language of anti-intellectualism) together with his hunger for rock stardom.

With his new album, Wrecking Ball, Springsteen has matched my weakness for his work with the weakness of his work. Granted, he’s aging; five years older than me, Springsteen is sixty-one now. Still, age is a limited defense for having released an album as wan and shallow as Wrecking Ball. If he’s tired, as he has every right to be, his job as a author of songs is to make something of that tiredness in his music—to make pop-music art out of what he knows and feels, as Leonard Cohen (at age 77) has done this year with his lyrically autumnal new album, Old Ideas, or as Paul Simon, at 69, did last year with his So Beautiful or So What. Instead, Springsteen has avoided the hard work of vividly, intimately evoking the human experience in favor of platitudes and sloganeering in quasi-jingoistic bromides like “We Take Care of Our Own.”

The album is more polemical than emotive—and confusedly, half-heartedly so. The ideas are ones Springsteen has dealt with far more effectively before. “Death to My Hometown,” for instance, simply takes the thesis of his lacerating old “Youngstown”—avaricious corporations do more damage than warring tyrants (an idea Springsteen found in the journalist Dale Maharidge’s book Journey to Nowhere, by the way)—and applies it to the setting of his bittersweet old “My Hometown.” Line to line, too, the writing on Wrecking Ball feels tossed off and unfinished. In “We Take Care of Our Own,” for instance, Springsteen sings, solemnly, “The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone.” Well, okay. But since when is a road supposed to be wet? Or did he not put enough effort into the lyric to come up with the word “river”?

On the cover of the album, Springsteen looks buff and grim, clutching the road-battered Fender Esquire electric guitar that has served as his rock-workhorse symbol since it swung on his shoulders on the jacket of Born to Run. Several years ago, Springsteen donated the instrument to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, where it remains a major attraction. My enduring weakness for Springsteen is such that I want to think of his guitar as the only museum piece on the cover of his new album.

Updated at 1:22 pm: What is Bruce talking about when he says that we take care of our own, anyway? Being informed and having lived for some time, he must have observed that American society has for years now suffered from a growing indifference to care for its own, as well as a deepening incompetence at that care. Self interest has been overwhelming America’s sense of service—in the working world he used to know, as well as in the one percent. If he meant the song prescriptively, rather than descriptively, it’s a misfire. The concentration on “our own,” moreover, is jingoistic pandering. Who, exactly, does he think of as “our own”—and who is he excluding? Another fine singer-songwriter, Jill Sobule, deals with the question in a song that Springsteen should hear.