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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Bruce Springsteen has told Rolling Stone that his new album "Wrecking Ball" was as direct a record as he ever made. It's also one of his most stylistically diverse, including elements of gospel and hip-hop, as well as rock and blues. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRECKING BALL")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Now my home was here in these Meadowlands where mosquitoes grow big as airplanes. Here where the blood is spilled, the arena's filled, Giants play games. So raise up your glass and let me hear your voices come. 'Cause tonight all the dead are here so bring on your wrecking ball. Bring on your wrecking ball.

KEN TUCKER: It's not difficult to guess what the overarching theme might be on an album Bruce Springsteen characterizes as being as direct as any he's made. The title song is one he wrote a few years ago to commemorate the demolition of Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

It was written from the point of view of the stadium. But in its new context, the wrecking ball is a symbol of the implacable forces that have wrecked the economy for millions of people. Government policy, banks and politicians are among those wielding the wrecking ball that, to Springsteen's way of thinking, is putting dents in, if not shattering, many people's souls.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JACK OF ALL TRADES")

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I'll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain, I'll mend your roof to keep out the rain. I'll take the work that God provides. I'm a jack of all trades. Honey, we'll be all right.

TUCKER: That's "Jack of All Trades," in which Springsteen sings in the character of a kind of universal laborer, eager for work, yet bitter. There's a verse about how, quote, "the banker man grows fat, workingman grows thin. It's all happened before, and it'll happen again." But the song takes a rather surprising turn at the end; replacing resignation is rebellion, with the narrator saying that if he had a gun, he'd shoot those who exploit him.

The song is something of a purposeful mess. The point of view shifts constantly, from that of a man begging for a job to one addressing a lover with the assurance, "Honey, we'll be all right," back to that guy whose despair has moved him to violence. It's all underscored by a guitar line from Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello.

Ultimately, the song is an unruly creation that works because of the music, which is rich with ripe melancholy and a subtly relentless pace that moves you toward that violence before you realize what's being sung. And indeed, it's the music you have to heed before the lyrics throughout "Wrecking Ball."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEATH TO MY HOMETOWN")

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Don't no cannonball did fly nor rifles cut us down. No bombs fell from the sky, no blood soaked the ground. No powder flash blinded the eye, no deathly thunder sound. But just as sure as the hand of God, they brought death to my hometown. Death to my hometown, boys.

TUCKER: "Death to My Hometown," a kind of bleak sequel to Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." song "My Hometown," is an Irish jig that moves with jaunty aggressiveness. The album's first single, "We Take Care of Our Own," is a full-bore blast of sound that could easily be the kick-off song on any given night of the tour Springsteen and his E Street Band are commencing with the release of this album.

But Springsteen works with co-producer Ron Aniello to create something less monolithic than an E Street Band record; it's a Springsteen album made with a wide variety of musicians and technology. Tape loops and samples are deployed to make sonic collages. On "Rocky Ground," Springsteen has even written a rap verse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKY GROUND")

MICHELLE MOORE: (Rapping) You use your muscle and your mind and you pray your best that your best is good enough. The lord will do the rest. You raise your children and teach them to walk straight and sure. You pray that hard times, hard times, come no more. You try to sleep, you toss and turn. The bottom's dropping out. Where you once had faith now there's only doubt. You pray for guidance, only silent sound meets your prayers.

(Rapping) The morning breaks. You awake but no one's there. We've been traveling over rocky ground.

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) There's a new day coming.

TUCKER: When I first got a finished CD of "Wrecking Ball," I looked quickly at the credits for "Rocky Ground" and thought it read, featured vocal by Michael Moore. Turns out it was gospel singer Michelle Moore on that song, but there's so much sociopolitical content on "Wrecking Ball" that it wouldn't have surprised me at all if The Boss had cajoled the agitprop filmmaker into howling a verse about, say, the present state of labor unions.

Still, one of the ways to miss the most significant achievements of "Wrecking Ball" is to concentrate on the lyrics and not appreciate what Springsteen is doing with the music here. It's a marvelously diverse creation, drawing upon and uniting so many American periods and styles of popular music that it creates a very effective tension. The lyrics may speak of despair, but the music testifies to a bottomless ingenuity, invention and, yes, exhilaration.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Bruce Springsteen's new album "Wrecking Ball." You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

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