Bruce Springsteen’s new album Wrecking Ball dropped today like a slightly dented and rusty, but still functional wrecking ball. This is Springsteen’s 18th album and, oh dear, yes, one song has a rap breakdown which we’ll pretend never happened. But Wrecking Ball has some other (less clumsy) flourishes that show Bruce has been influenced by the current music landscape.
The thing is, we like it better when Bruce is the one doing the influencing. He may have been raising hell around the Jersey Shore before it was overrun by orange trolls, back when guys were referred to as “cats,” but his aesthetic and style have become the timeless hallmarks of Americana grit-rock. As a result, even when he isn’t releasing new music, it’s been increasingly hard to escape The Boss’s vice grip on rock music. For the past ten years or so, the ghosts of Springsteen past/present have increasingly been popping up on new albums. If there’s a stateside band with any grand rock aspirations, then at some point they’ll adopt the Springsteen formula. Below we’ve laid out these five signs that a band is going through a “Bruce” phase. Any group seen exhibiting any of these symptoms must consult the nearest dockworker immediately.
1. Blatantly grit-mongering lyrics
Bruce’s songs are jam-packed with expository lyrics that bring to mind words like “hardscrabble,” “gritty,” and “rust.” Some might think it’s all a collection of superficial musings about the working man’s plight (with some classic girl names thrown in for good measure), but the transcendent Springsteen cuts take specific details and make them sound universal. It’s that last part that stymies many bands.
2. Conversational and confidently warbly vocals
Being the ultimate storyteller means fitting a lot of words into these 4-minute chunks so that you can get through the whole story (not every song can be as long as “New York City Serenade”). And that has led to Springsteen’s trademark vocal style: this raspy, conversational, commanding delivery, growling but not angry. When singers can’t replicate his vibrato, they’ll often employ a minor echo effect to give the vox that added grand (canyon) aesthetic. And don’t forget the occasional yelps!
3. Pianos, saxes, and glockenspiels, oh my!
On the surface, Springsteen’s music sounds simple and straightforward, but he orchestrates complex and layered instrumentation. Twinkly pianos intertwined with chunky riffs, glockenspiel breakdowns, emotional swells led by a sax or harmonica solo – these are the flourishes we now take for granted. Though he’s more straightforward these days, we thankfully have plenty of bands picking up the sexy sax man slack.
4. A strange preponderance of tempo changes and/or grandiose choruses
When Bruce’s songs aren’t ceaselessly chugging forward in a basic but propulsive rhythmic structure that evokes a road trip through the open fields of the Midwest, they dole out triumphant signature changes (“Jungleland”) or soul-affirming melodies (“Badlands”). Your favorite band will try to replicate this, but it’ll sound a lot more labored.
Demonstrated by: the Killers, “Sam’s Town,” the Gaslight Anthem, “Great Expectations,” Wolf Parade, “Palm Road”
5. Fight the power (of the surcharge)
Springsteen’s political views are well known; most notably he is an outspoken opponent of corporate greed and a big-time union supporter. He’s spent his entire career championing the cause of the common American, and so, the final step in the Bruce playbook is to lay claim to an issue that the common people can get behind. If you can’t butter them up with your tunes, butter them up with the promise of a more equitable future. Didn’t Machiavelli say that once?
Demonstrated by: Pearl Jam taking on Ticketmaster, Jeff Mangum at Occupy Wall Street, Arcade Fire in Haiti