Springsteen is back – and he's on top form

These are stirring, big-hearted songs with big themes, The Boss still digging deeper than we might reasonably expect of someone who made his first album some 40 years ago.

Bruce Springsteen, seen here performing at the Grammy awards in Los Angeles last month, has released his 17th studio album, Wrecking Ball.
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Wrecking Ball

"My work has always been about judging the distance between reality and the American dream," Bruce Springsteen told journalists last month after a playback of Wrecking Ball at the Théâtre Marigny in Paris. "It's often [appropriated] by different political groups because there is a strand of patriotism underneath, but it's a critical, angry, often questioning kind of patriotism."

That much was apparent even as far back as Springsteen's 1984 single Born in the USA. Though it was mistakenly read by some as a jingoistic anthem, the song was actually a nod to the marginalised Vietnam veterans Springsteen thought the US government had used, then abandoned.

On Wrecking Ball, its title a metaphor for the socio-economic devastation wrought by the banking crisis of 2008 and its subsequent mismanagement, The Boss's righteous anger is again cranked to the max. Death to My Hometown, an Irish-folk flavoured nugget built on massive-sounding drums, expressly targets greed and corruption on Wall Street, Springsteen lambasting "the greedy thieves who came around / and ate the flesh of everything they found".

This is the singer's 17th studio album, and once again one has to marvel at the reserves of heart the 62-year-old brings to proceedings. His music still crackles with real energy and verve when he has something to rail against – and he has plenty to rail against here.

The title of We Take Care of Our Own is of course ironic, Springsteen's "There ain't no help / the cavalry stayed home" neatly tapping into potent cowboy movie imagery as he references such travesties of "care" as the US administration's achingly slow response to Hurricane Katrina. Musically speaking, the song is classic Springsteen, a hugely infectious guitar-piano riff driving home its simple but powerful message.

At the Paris press conference, the singer also spoke of seeing his father "emasculated by long-term unemployment". One wonders if that experience fed into the writing of another of the album's standout tracks, Jack of All Trades. A moving piano ballad in waltz time, it's voiced from the perspective of a down-at-heel manual worker who has been forced to diversify. Like so many of Springsteen's best songs, it's a tribute to blue-collar stoicism, but after an exquisite brass section and mandolin-led interlude, the deeply felt frustrations of the song's protagonist leak to the surface. "If I had me a gun / I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight," he sings. "I'm a jack of all trades / we'll be all right."

Wrecking Ball certainly sees The Boss do his bit as an employer. The record's folk, blues, country and gospel-infused songs feature some 30 musicians and backing vocalists – and that's not including the Victorious Gospel Choir, the ensemble that lends extra oomph to Land of Hope and Dreams. That track also features a typically explosive saxophone solo by Springsteen's dear departed E Street Band foil, Clarence Clemons, and it's one of several songs here underpinned by a tangible spiritual yearning.

Springsteen's revisiting of certain cherished themes in this US election year currently makes perfect sense, and with he and the producer Ron Aniello sometimes using sequenced loops and hip-hop influenced beats, there is no question of The Boss merely treading water here. Rocky Ground even features a Bruce-written rap courtesy of Michelle Moore – and in defiance of all existing raps written by people over 60, it works.

Some might quibble that Wrecking Ball asks many questions but offers no real answers other than to persevere. But unlike Bono, Springsteen has always been careful not to confuse an aptitude for music with an aptitude for hands-on politics. Indeed, he recently opined that it is better for artists to "maintain a certain distance from the seat of power", adding that his job is to raise awareness, doing for us what Bob Dylan had done for him.

What's clear from listening to Wrecking Ball is that Springsteen still has an unrivalled knack for dignifying unabashed grandiosity. These are stirring, big-hearted songs with big themes, The Boss still digging deeper than we might reasonably expect of someone who made his first album some 40 years ago.