Within the realm popular music it is one thing for an artist to reflect their passion and concerns for a particular issue within their musical offerings. It is quite another for an artist to successfully translate that passion into a coherent musical form which not only conveys the artist's strength and depth of feeling across the entirety of an album but also manages to leave his targeted audience - or should I say significant sections of it at least - breathlessly craving to play that album over and over again to delight in what the artist has created.
To read the cool detachment and glib dismissals of some music critics in their critiques of Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball album - albeit many of whom despite such glibness have still registered positive reviews - you would think that there is a surfeit of albums of this genre littering the rock canon; that for an artist to achieve such a feat is akin to shelling peas and is, consequently, the preserve of many. In reality, albums that are not only thematic but at the same time consistent across the board in their quality and ability to both enthral and give pleasure are rare commodities.
The fact is the musical landscape for all the delights it yields is by no means awash with such seamless treasures. Sure many artists and many albums have aspired to reach such heights. Few, however, have managed it. On a personal level I am only too painfully aware of this because they are precisely the sort of musical offerings I have made it my ongoing mission to track down and cherish ever since back in 1969 I sat awestruck listening to The Band, four Canadians and an Arkansian, managing to pull off this incredibly elusive trick with their second album which logged so evocatively the theme of a backwoods America, up to that point and, indeed since, the sole preserve of film and literature.
That I have rarely been fully rewarded in my efforts does not mean that I view disparagingly albums not quite reaching such levels of unerring track to track thematic consistency of giants such as the aforementioned Band and the likes of Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and REM or that I regard any such albums as being necessarily of lesser majesty. But it does explain why one artist in particular has rewarded me on more than one occasion with his efforts in this cinematic area.
On Born To Run, Darkness, Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, Tom Joad and The Rising, Bruce Springsteen certainly made it his business to aspire to the heights I speak of. Whether he achieved those heights on all of them is open to debate.
What is not debatable is how definite themes seam through all these albums. Nor, I guess, would there be too much dispute that the themes of a young buck's quest for escape on Born to Run, the sense of entrapment of Darkness, the human alienation and desolation of Nebraska and the fragility of loving relationships on Tunnel of Love saw each of those four albums also reach musical heights to rank with any.
By the same token - or certainly as far as I see it at least - the worthy themes present in Tom Joad's despair for discarded immigrants and The Rising's concern for the victims of 9/11 did not succeed in taking those two albums to corresponding heights. Clearly even for an artist of Springsteen's stature and supreme craftsmanship a worthy theme is by no means a guarantee of hitting the target.
So against this thematic backdrop, where can we place Springsteen's latest offering, Wrecking Ball, and its take on America in 2012? Does Springsteen still possess the artistry to create another soulmate to warrant comparison with his amazing earlier quartet? Or are we to be content with yet another admirable yet ultimately inferior attempt at greatness?
Well, regarding the theme of Wrecking Ball, the underlying catalyst is as clear as can be. In the wake of what has transpired economically these past few years both in his own country and - as a result - worldwide, Springsteen is an angry man. Whilst, as we shall see, this is by no means the sole theme of Wrecking Ball, on certain tracks such as Shackled and Drawn, Jack of All Trades and Death To My Hometown Springsteen is a man seething, a man utterly despairing of the greed, self indulgence and desire to exploit innocent folk of the mercantile classes; of the irresponsibility of the peoples' chosen and elected government to protect and aid ordinary folk against the ravages of both nature and the economy; of the very concept of those he views as guilty of turning a blind eye to the plight of the impoverished or merely paying lip service to it.
The ire oozes from every pore of such tirades. Why even the protagonist who seems the most placid of all those Springsteen conjures up on the album - the literal Jack of all trades - would gladly bag himself a banker if he had him a gun.
Of course, some critics baulk at the irony of a multi-millionaire railing at other millionaires. Incredibly, some even find the anger contrived. Well, okay, there can be no doubting there has to be a certain degree of irony involved. Yet contrived? Nah. Anybody with even a modicum of genuine compassion will know you do not have to be a victim of plight to feel genuine empathy with those experiencing it. And just a single listen to the venom Springsteen spits out on some of these tracks at such contemptible folk or at those who have aided and abetted them with either wilful pandering or inadvertent irresponsibility is more than sufficient to dispel the slightest notion of any insincerity. This is a man feeling genuine contempt for those culpable for marginalising so many of his fellow Americans. It is not a man up for mere posturing. And with Springsteen's track record of deeply held convictions how in any case could any such notion withstand even the most fleeting scrutiny.
But Wrecking Ball is not simply an outpouring of anger. True, anger has clearly been the catalyst for Springsteen's writing and informs much of it. But, as is the case with any true artist and craftsman, Springsteen employs such anger to enhance rather than engulf what he is attempting to create. And so other emotions, other concerns, other reflections gradually come to the forefront of the album's landscape.
From his scorn in the opening track for a government he feels manifestly fails to care of its own through his Easy Money nod to the reality of how the darker criminal aspects of life can be induced by a ravaged economy via his overt aforesaid triumvirate of pure angry songs, the album explores the nooks and crannies of how the broader economic plight impacts on the vulnerable. It culminates in This Depression, one of his bleakest ever offerings in which Springsteen's protagonist is so down and so lost he resorts to seemingly alluding to the plight of Jesus on the cross to convey how he, too, feels so "forsaken".
Having reached rock bottom in the chronicling of the ravaging of his fellow countrymen in the first half of the album, Springsteen then does what he does better than anyone else in the album's second half. Spitting full in the face of adversity, he draws on the indefatigability of the human spirit to take the album to heights that, despite repeated plays, remain unimaginable amidst the despair of the opening six tracks.
He does this with the not inconsiderable aid of two songs - the title track Wrecking Ball and the tenth track Land of Hope and Dreams - each of which has been around for some time, the latter for a decade or more. Each now re-emerges triumphantly on Wrecking Ball, each riding in like the US Cavalry on its bugler's fanfare, each integrating seamlessly with the rest of the album's material to become not only its two cornerstones but to lend relevance and true stature to everything else on the album. As we tune in spellbound to each of these incredible pieces of music at long last finding their true spiritual home, an album which would still be a pretty fabulous one transcends quite simply into a uniquely emotional listening experience.
The defiance of Wrecking Ball, in its former life a defiant yet, at heart, little more than parochial lament for the demolition of the New York Giants football stadium, becomes the pivotal gauntlet for those the album seeks to champion. Fittingly it is singled out as the album's title track. Equally fittingly it heralds an entirely different ball game.
"Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you got" is no longer merely defying a demolition man to destroy a stadium of brick and concrete but explodes into Springsteen's call to arms, reaffirming human resolve to overcome whatever hardships may have been inflicted and whatever impoverishment may have threatened to destroy lives and, indeed, may already have destroyed many. In such context, the song's defiant mantra forged to a climactic build up which Springsteen clearly revels in stage managing is as emotionally uplifting and exciting as such music can surely ever get.
Three tracks later Land of Hope and Dreams somehow manages to eclipse even that emotional charge as the full impact of lyrics that have been around for so long hits home so resonantly it simply defies tears not to trickle with pride that a fellow human can encompass so exhilaratingly the fortitude of the human spirit. So long a mighty blue whale of a song, yet seemingly destined to languish forever without a fitting expanse of sea in which to swim, Land of Hope and Dreams now swims majestically in the ocean of an album for which its yearning spirit was manifestly always destined.
Two of the remaining three tracks in this closing quintet of uplifting spirit stand nobly alongside the might of the older established two, albeit in their own less voluble manner, and each again lend significance to what has preceded them. The third, meanwhile - albeit not at the same level - still rides ably enough the crest of the same emotional wave created by the others.
The lesser track, You've Got It, can be interpreted in two ways. Either as an earthy sexual distraction from the plight or, with the term `Baby' interpreted generically, as yet more affirmation of the prevailing depth of human resource. Rocky Ground, the first of the final two gems, requires half a dozen plays to bed down and unveil fully the magnificence of its own spiritual splendour and biblical message. It sees Springsteen offering a reaffirmation of those stirring trademark live concert evangelical forays of his but delivered this time with tender restraint amidst the simple poignancy of the song's melody that fits the ascending mood perfectly. The second new gem, We Are Alive, closes the set with fitting divine homage to cherished souls, a wonderfully poetic ending with wry whimsical notions evoking the spirits of those fighters for justice and freedom gone by emerging to stand shoulder to shoulder with their impoverished descendants. In some hands such a notion would fall short of its target; perhaps embarrassingly so. In a master artist's warm and loving embrace it works stunningly on both a lyrical and musical level.
With these final spellbinding outpourings, Springsteen completes his narrative arc. The stirring defiance of Wrecking Ball; the understated realisation and life affirming perspective of Rocky Ground; the faith, hope and salvation offered by Land of Hope and Dream's spiritual train; and the final redemptive communion with the departed souls of We Are Alive have taken us to a place scarcely imaginable.
A little more than 25 minutes earlier Springsteen's caustic sniping, naked rage and bleak despair cast such a dark shadow over the first half dozen tracks that the outcome we now share with the protagonists was never a remote possibility. Now, uplifted in spirit and with souls ignited, we see precisely why such a dark opening was not simply needed but pivotal in allowing the album to work as spectacularly as it does. Without it the album's climax would be shorn of its closing focus and intensity. With it, the entire thing becomes exultant. The album's protagonists and those of us privileged to listen to it are transcended.
Each track may now be seen for the vital piece of the whole it is, forming the nigh perfect cohesive entity Springsteen clearly envisaged as he welded his individual tales amidst the disparate musical idioms of folk, rock, pop, soul, gospel, Celtic fire, latin horns et alia as only a master marinated in such music could ever do. At the same time, the question as to where Wrecking Ball slots into Springsteen's pantheon is rendered a superfluous one. As with any great art, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And here we are reminded triumphantly by the artist that we are feasting at the table of a master chef without peer.