Bruce Springsteen/Todd Snider

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WRECKING BALL, Bruce Springsteen (Columbia); AGNOSTIC HYMNS & STONER FABLES, Todd Snider (Aimless).

Bruce Springsteen’s records often seem more urgent when he has something to rail against. The Reaganomics of the 1980s focused the rage of Born in the USA; the attack on the Twin Towers brought the musical rebirth of The Rising.

Recent events in America such as the banker bailouts and the growing gap between rich and poor have got him fired up again, resulting in Wrecking Ball, an album that telegraphs indignation in bold slogans and unambiguous motifs.

Although Springsteen has typically been a romantic and an optimist, the opening track, We Take Care of Our Own, finds him in an uncharacteristically bleak frame of mind, as images of poverty and neglect (“from the shotgun shack to the Superdome”) are interlaced with lines from America the Beautiful. Even the song’s benevolent-sounding title becomes a mantra for the forces of self-interest.

This bitter irony sets the tone of the record, as Bruce’s blue-collar narrator – essentially the same voice he has used from day one – rains curses on bankers and robber barons. Although you might find the remnants of his old idealism in Land of Hope and Dreams, the rousing penultimate track, it is significant that this is an older song, having first appeared on his Live in New York City set more than a decade ago.

Musically, too, the song dials up his past, with its dragster riff and wall of sound production, and I guess the last saxophone solo we will hear from the late Clarence Clemons. Elsewhere, there are other reminders of classic Springsteen, mixed in with the stomping stadium-folk style he introduced with 2006’s Seeger Sessions.

But though his rage is palpable and stance admirable, the writing on Wrecking Ball too often sounds mechanical, and the addition of samples and loops, though innovative by Springsteen’s standards, only suggests a self-conscious need to be relevant.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, Todd Snider has been observing the same ironies and injustices, but has made a far more entertaining record. Like Wrecking Ball, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables opens with a meditation on faith and capitalism. Unlike Springsteen’s, it will make you laugh; a piece of shaggy-dog philosophy, culminating in the devastating conclusion that “we need religion to keep the poor from killing the rich”.

Similarly, Snider’s New York Banker is far more specific and sardonic than anything on Springsteen’s record. “Good things happen to bad people” goes the singalong chorus. And there are more recognisable figures scattered among the shadowy stereotypes. Brenda is a country-rocker about an old married couple that may or may not be Mick ’n’ Keef, while Precious Little Miracles is an ingeniously distressed jazz tune addressed to today’s youth.

This Oregon-born, Music City maverick has been likened to a country Randy Newman, but an anarchist Roger Miller or acid-head Tom T Hall might be nearer the mark. He has so far released a dozen albums, each more willful and uncompromising than the one before. If Springsteen still sounds like he is looking for a commercial radio home, Snider has a raggedness that says he gave up on any such dreams long ago. The playing on Agnostic Hymns is rough and urgent, from the garage-rock drumming to his own punk-raw guitar, with the only refinement coming from Amanda Shires’s violin.

In these brutal times, it is comforting to hear musical leaders calling the rich and powerful to account. But if they can make me grin while they do it, that’s even better. 

Tags: bruce springsteentodd snider

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