Lean Linear City, Capitalist Realism, and Wrecking Ball
Lean Linear City: Arterial Arcology
By Paolo Soleri
Cosanti Press, 2011, 120 pp.
Review by Mike Reizman
Last November, Arundhati Roy spoke to a gathering of Occupy Wall Street protestors: “You have reintroduced the right to dream into a system that tried to turn everybody into zombies mesmerized into equating mindless consumerism with happiness and fulfillment.” It’s a well-established theme, with variations. The theme was also taken up in silt and concrete, drawings and essays, by Paolo Soleri over 50 years ago in the Arizona desert. Ever since, Soleri, internationally renowned architect and philosopher, has been extolling frugality as a way of life and in city design.
The architect is not a fan of consumerism: “The medieval city was contained within the defensive boundaries of its walls. Today’s city ought to be contained within the defensive boundaries of walls that can fight consumerism.” In the city, Soleri sees the salvation of the environment and the evolution of man. His “arcology” concept (architecture plus ecology) is a reimagining of the city as a complex, three-dimensional, highly integrated, “one-structure system”—arcologies would conserve land, energy, and resources wasted in urban sprawl.
Soleri excoriates the single family home as “the most consuming, the most wasteful, the most polluted, the most segregating kind of shelter we can devise.” His use of the word “segregating” means isolating. In fact, he thinks of suburban homes as “private hermit houses.” Their sprawl does not encourage the levels of interaction available in compact cities.
At an event in support of “occupying citizens worldwide,” Jeff Stein, the president of Soleri’s Cosanti Foundation, noted that the mortgage debt on “millions of little boxes in this country” was at the center of this country’s economic collapse. Stein also emphasized that Soleri and his colleagues support the Occupy movement, but “are not hippies”—linking Occupy Wall Street, in my mind, to the 1960s, the era in which Soleri made his biggest impact and which he seems to be permanently identified.
In the 1960s, Soleri’s best-known book was published and his most popular exhibition opened. Arcology, The City in the Image of Man (MIT Press, 1969) was one of the decade’s most unique architecture books. The result of two decades of research and experimentation, the book has a wingspan of four feet when opened.
In 1970, a traveling retrospective of Soleri’s work opened at the Corcoran Gallery, the first one-person architectural show in the museum’s 100-year history. Also that year, construction began on Arcosanti, a prototype arcology, 70 miles north of Phoenix.
Soleri’s introduction to the Arizona desert began with his interest in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. After earning a Ph.D. in architecture in his native Italy, Soleri spent 1947-48 on scholarship as part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship, where, among other things, he learned that he was “unable to work on other people’s design.”
Although the master and student had an amiable relationship, Soleri was asked to leave Taliesin West, Wright’s desert school outside Phoenix. One reason for Soleri’s dismissal involved his idea to start a version of Taliesin in Italy. Wright liked the project until he found out that Soleri had recruited a few of his students. Soleri left Taliesin with his friend, Mark Mills. They set up a tent about 15 miles away on the slopes of Camelback Mountain. This idealistic duo spent eight months at their modest headquarters designing architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright thought that Soleri “…seems to be more brilliant as a painter than as an architect. But there are many roads toward architecture and he could find one if he is sufficiently patient.”
In 1949, Leonora Woods and her daughter, Colly, headed west from Pittsburgh with the intention of hiring Wright to build them a desert house. Woods was discouraged by the waiting list and cost. Someone at Taliesin West—it may have been Wright—directed her to the unorthodox architecture “office” near the top of Camelback Mountain. The result was the Dome House, built on a small budget in Cave Creek, 30 miles north of Phoenix, by Woods, Mills, Paolo, and Colly (who would eventually marry Paolo). Fulfilling Woods’s wish to see stars from the living room, a moveable glass dome was constructed using aluminum struts from old airplane wings purchased at a flea market.
I was lucky enough to visit the Dome House during an Arcosanti workshop many years ago. While I was there, someone told me a story about Frank Lloyd Wright’s visit. Wright walked through the Dome House pointing at its features, making clear the ratio of his influence over his ex-students’ originality, “That’s mine, That’s mine, That’s mine, That’s yours, That’s mine, That’s mine,” etc. The way I was told the story, he then walked out without saying another word.”
In 1955, Soleri bought approximately five acres in Paradise Valley “intimately snuggled”—according to Sotheby’s—between Scottsdale and Phoenix. Soleri then began the development of the experimental Cosanti complex: “Adept at shovel handling, I didn’t shape furrows for staple growing. Instead, I made shapes to generate negative forms that concrete and steel positively would make permanent (for a while, at least).”
Those “shapes” became earth houses, studios, apses, and other structures. They were handcrafted, built up out of the earth. The apse is one of Soleri’s favorite forms. It is a quarter-sphere. Facing south, an apse, in winter, acts as a sun collector, in summer, a sun shade. It seems characteristic of Soleri that the structures at the Cosanti complex evolved from simple beginnings. This is how Soleri explains the evolution of his technique: “….Changing from fractions of square feet to many square feet and from liquid clay to concrete was simply a form of extrapolation. That which had been a pot became a house.”
“A pot became a house” might be from a fairy tale. Yet there are workable instructions with a similar progression. Soleri’s Earth Casting (Peregrine Smith Books) is an excellent how-to book, providing basic to progressively more complex earth-casting techniques to create pot-shaped windbells, planters, sculpture, architectural models, etc. Construction techniques are also covered, with the earth houses and structures at Cosanti and Arcosanti used as examples.
The construction of Soleri’s earth houses uniquely begins with the roof. A large mound of earth is piled up and shaped to form the mold for the roof. It is shaped and carved with the simplest instruments, including shovels, hoes, rakes, screeds, floats, trowels, two-by-fours, pieces of scrap wood and, if any delicate work is necessary, butter knives. The first layer of concrete is poured onto this roof mold and set. Steel reinforcing is then put in place and more concrete is poured. After the concrete is cured, the dirt mound underneath is excavated as walls and other elements are added, such as columns, and, finally, the concrete for the foundation is poured.
The roof, ceiling, walls, panels, etc. vary in texture and retain muted polychrome colors where concrete pigment was applied to the mold. Structural and aesthetic details include structural ribs, skylights, and abstract shapes and figures. Soleri emphasizes that his earth houses are semi-subterranean, “amply open to sunlight, air, sounds, climate, and so forth.” Houses totally underground and sealed from those essentials he judges to be suitable for moles, not human beings.
The Cosanti complex was built between 1956 and 1974, with the aid of architecture students starting in what Soleri termed Silt-Pile Workshops. It is an appealing and unique environment suited for the desert, unlike the suburban houses that eventually snuggled up to it. The people in Phoenix have been enabled to live as if they weren’t in a desert—compliments of air conditioning and the Central Arizona Project, one of the largest and most costly water projects on earth.
Unfortunately, Phoenix may be “the epicenter of the coming water crisis” in the American West, according to Fred Pearce (When the Rivers Run Dry, Beacon Press). The opulent areas of Phoenix sprawl are the worst offenders. Houses in suburbs like Paradise Valley and Scottsdale daily consume around 10,000 gallons of water in the summer. To put that in context, there are currently 150 million city dwellers worldwide (mostly in Asia and Africa) who perennially have less than the daily minimum of 26 gallons of water for all their needs (drinking, bathing, etc.). There may be over 1 billion city dwellers in the same straits by 2050.
Among his books, Soleri is probably most associated with his detailed black-and-white conceptual drawings in Arcology. The drawings of 30 arcologies are reduced from the originals on 20-foot long scrolls. Babelnoah is the largest arcology in the book in terms of population, theoretically set at 6,000,000, with a population density of 333 people an acre—currently Manhattan has a density of 104 people per acre. Babelnoah, a self-sustaining city building, was designed to cover 18,000 acres.
The arcology Hexahedron, outdoes the ancient Egyptians, at least in concept. Two triangular structures, one inverted below the other, are suspended above the ground on columns. The triangles form a continuous building connected by inner columns. This arcology is pegged to be 1,100 meters high and the span would be 1 kilometer, the surface covering 140 acres and a density of 1,200 people per acre.
All arcologies are designed with very high population densities. But wouldn’t the average density of cities suffice? Using the density of Brooklyn, about 35,000 people per square mile, graphic artist Shane Keaney calculated that the entire population of the United States could fit into New Hampshire (8,968 square miles). The rest of the United States would be open land, a 49 state green belt.
It’s easy to understand why arcologies have been tagged as megastructures. Yet the first page of Arcology declares: “This book is about miniaturization.” Miniaturization and other arcology concepts fill the first part of the book. Soleri emphasizes that arcologies can’t be fully understood outside the context of his philosophy. In fact, he considers that his most significant contributions are as a philosopher.
Because much of his philosophy is written in a very idiosyncratic style, I prefer his collections of interviews and conversations: The Urban Ideal (Berkeley Hills Books) and The Mind Garden (Bridgewood Press). The question and answer format is helpful. At one point in The Mind Garden, interviewer Michel Sarda says to Soleri, “We might have lost our reader here.” Paolo replies, “I know, that’s my problem.”
Soleri thinks “a city should function as a living system.” Organisms become more miniaturized and complex as they evolve. He applies that to cities. In The Urban Ideal, he provides a simple metaphor for the concepts of miniaturization, complexity, and three-dimensionality as they relate to arcologies. If the human brain were two-dimensional, Soleri says, “it might cover an area of twenty or so square miles.” It would need “thousands of miles of connectors for it to function.” He continues, “But the human brain, as it has evolved, is an example of enormous complexity which comes about because of its folding over, three-dimensionally, back upon itself, and the notion of miniaturization is intrinsic to this process.”
Arcologies would be huge three-dimensional buildings, but looked at another way, the average arcology would take up only “about two percent as much land as a typical city of similar population,” according to the Arcosanti website. That incredibly small footprint is the result of the miniaturization concept applied to design.
In terms of miniaturization, Soleri thinks that cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix are the true megastructures, logistical nightmares sprawled out like that dysfunctional two-dimensional brain. The miniaturized structure of an arcology, with its high population density, is intended to enable a more complete—and therefore richer environment than suburbia—with the necessary compactness to support a multitude of interactions between people, and a much more efficient infrastructure. Tokyo, for example, has 10 times the population density of Phoenix. Gasoline consumption per person in Phoenix is 10 times that of Tokyo.
Soleri offers his arcology concept not just as a possible solution to urban and environmental problems—he also believes that “the city is the necessary instrument for the evolution of humankind.” To be brief, Soleri proposes that an event he calls the “urban effect” recurs through evolution from one-celled organisms to the city. He explains the concept as “the impulse of reality towards organizing itself in such an intense, interlocked, interweaving, interacting set of elements that all of a sudden, it creates life, and, perhaps, consciousness where before it was only mineral stuff.”
He thinks the city is part of this evolutionary process because it is “the system, more than any other, that sees the transition of the already unbelievable complexity of the human phenomenon into even more improbable occasions: the political, economic, social, ethical, cultural, scientific, esthetic, and technological totality, which is more than the sum of all its parts and is the epitome of complexity.”
Among the architects who started to design megacities after World War II, such as the Archigram Group, Soleri is unique in basing his architecture on a philosophical system, (which is more extensive than described here), and with an overriding concern for the environment and sustainability.
One of Soleri’s recent arcology designs is presented in his new book, Lean Linear City: Arterial Arcology. In contrast to the first arcology book, it’s compact, without any hand-drawn plans. It’s profusely illustrated in color with photos, informative graphics, models, and CAD drawings. Five contributors round out Soleri’s text. All linear cities are designed to follow a logistical spine—a highway, railroad, waterway, or the latest mass-transit, as in Soleri’s design. Other linear city designs include:
- Roadtown by Edgar Chambless, described in his 1910 book
Linear Industrial City (c. 1942) by Le Corbusier, one of the
20th Century’s most influential architects
Jersey Corridor Project by Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves
and other Princeton professors, described in a 1965 Life Magazine
Even with a low population density, a linear city theoretically would resist sprawl by growing parallel to a transportation route. These straight and narrow cities were designed to link up with established urban centers, or “Radio-concentric” cities in Le Corbusier’s plan. These would act as hubs to distribute merchandise and provide centralized services.
Linear city designers weren’t intimidated from proposing cities of outlandish lengths. Even in 1882, Soria y Mata imagined the possibility of a future linear city stretching between “Cadiz and St. Petersburg, or Peking and Brussels.” Le Corbusier imagined a linear city stretching across Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.
The history of linear cities is arcane, but not even a truncated version is included in Soleri’s book. So, the casual reader has no way to gauge the lean linear city in relation to previous designs.
Lean Linear City begins with a good photo-realistic image. Futuristic-looking, this arcology stretches for two pages through green countryside. A continuous structure of incredible length, the lean linear city looks like it might be a high-tech defensive border. One sees nothing but this miles-long building and open land. The modus operandi of all linear cities—transportation lines—are not visible. Energy efficient local light rail and regional trains run inside the structure. As in all arcologies, the local prime movers would still be feet and bikes, supplemented by “vertical transport systems.”
The lean linear city is modular, enabling the construction of only one self-contained, 10-acre city module or many modules and nodes. The nodes are modified apses. Each module of the lean linear city consists of two main parallel structures separated by an inner green belt. A stream runs through this inner park. Struts, in some cases holding glazed canopies and pedestrian bridges connect the parallel structures. With farms and orchards adjacent to the city, greenhouses attached along the length of the arcology, and the possibility of vertical farming within the structure, “food mileage” would be greatly reduced. Each module supposedly would provide 50 to 80 percent of its own energy needs from wind turbines, solar panels, and passive solar features such as the greenhouses, which Soleri calls energy aprons.
The lean linear city isn’t restricted to a straight route. It’s designed to follow the flow of the land and could even be configured into a circle. Open land, cultivated or wild, would lie directly at the edge of the city. The lean linear city’s saving grace is its low environmental impact and its robust self-sufficiency.
Conceived for China, though presumably not as a new Great Wall, the lean linear city is intended as an alternative to that country’s adoption of the “Western formula” of unbridled materialism. Since 2005, Soleri has presented his linear city (formerly named Solare) at forums in China and in a 2009 Beijing exhibit. Soleri thinks that it’s too late to reform American-style materialism. The suburban road to hell is paved with good intentions. Reform, he writes, “works at improving the wrong thing and thus moves toward a dead end.” According to a chart in his book, 3.8 earths would be needed if everybody on the planet lived like Americans. He proposes “reformulation” instead of reform. Basically that means creating a new paradigm, “starting with our most basic needs—shelter and food.”
In 1969, Soleri wrote, “…Indeed nothing in the urban dilemma is anything but experimental. We are groping, groping or dying, a thing that must enter the minds of policymakers, powerholders, planners, and architects.” He follows by saying that his search for solutions to the urban dilemma “will be experimental but not haphazard; in fact, there is an overriding discipline.”
It’s a moot point whether or not the lean linear city will be built. Soleri’s new book enables him once again to present his ideas.
Mike Reizman works as a technical writer and freelance journalist. He is seeking a publisher or grant to expand upon his article, Drones Over America (Z Magazine, September 2010), in particular to explore the development of mini drones, such as robot flies and Hummingbirds. He can be contacted at: [email protected].
Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher
Zero Books, Washington, 2009, 81 pp.
Review by Peter Grosvenor
In an appreciative essay on Upton Sinclair (the Atlantic, July/August 2002), the late Christopher Hitchens acknowledged how offensive the term “socialist realism” had become, due to its associations with the propaganda art of a false Soviet paradise. But, he insisted, the term could be used more authentically to describe radical art that laid bare the Hobbesian brutalities underlying capitalist ideals of freedom and prosperity. Indeed, there was no better literary practitioner of this socialist realism than Sinclair whose novel, The Jungle, Hitchens described as the best rendition in fiction of the central arguments of Das Kapital.
The term “capitalist realism” was an ironic 1960s coinage describing a German artistic movement—very indebted to American Pop Art—that satirized the superficiality, crassness, and consumerism of Western culture. But, in the usage of British cultural journalist and blogger Mark Fisher, it has taken on a more explicitly political meaning.
Fisher introduces his conception of capitalist realism with the observation, attributed to Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” Capitalist realism, then, means the ability of capitalism to present itself as the only viable socio-economic system and to depict all projected alternatives as fantastical and delusional.
Fisher’s analysis of how we arrived at a condition of capitalist realism is one in which, over the past three decades, the stability of the post-WWII managed economy, based on the Fordist production line, gave way to a more turbulent neo-liberal and increasingly global economic environment in which post-Fordist production methods require labor flexibility, accelerated technological change, and outsourcing. Under these neo-liberal conditions, the good life is conceived of in materialistic terms, organized labor goes into decline, and the resulting increased job insecurity (now often called “precarity”) and work intensification are accepted as inescapable features of life—a capitalist realist perspective to which the left has failed to articulate an alternative (as the theorists like to say, counter-hegemonic) nar- rative.
These conditions induce defeatism and despondency on the left. But Fisher insists that there is no reason for the left to accept capitalist realism’s dismissal of possible futures. Although this book has risen to prominence in radical political debate against the background of the global financial crisis, Fisher insists that the need to envision practical alternatives to capitalism is independent of that crisis. In fact, the massive transfer of public funds to private financiers in the form of bank bailouts is a public affirmation of the capitalist realist assertion that there is simply no alternative even to a self-evidently failing capitalism. So, crisis aside, Fisher offers his readers three reasons why the left can and should mount an effective challenge to capitalist realism.
First, he returns to a core insight of radical politics that should inoculate the left against the fatalism of capitalist realism, namely that human history exhibits a vast diversity of socio-economic systems, not one of which can justify itself by an appeal to the natural order of things—even if they all attempt to do precisely that. As Fisher asks, why would we accept the prevailing political climate as natural when mainstream scientific opinion now tells us that not even the meteorological climate is natural? This does not mean, of course, that there are no limits to the futures we can create, only that we have no need to internalize those limits claimed by the capitalist realists.
Second, Fisher reminds his readers that many aspects of economic, social, and political life that are now claimed to be final and inevitable were, not long ago, regarded as improbable or even impossible. Neo-liberalism is a recent accomplishment of the New Right, whose economic and political theorists—such as Friedman and Hayek—were voices in the wilderness during those decades when Keynesianism was—in the coinage of the prominent Keynesian economist J.K. Galbraith—the conventional wisdom.
Third, capitalist realism should be confronted because it seeks to put beyond the scope of debate the unjust, dysfunctional, and contradictory nature of life as it is lived in the capitalist realist era. The exposure of the depressing and nonsensical contemporary phenomena that rest on the claims of capitalist realism is the principal purpose of Fisher’s book.
Perhaps the most pervasive and damaging of these phenomena is what Fisher calls “business ontology,” by which he means the widespread dismissal of notions such as “public interest” and “social service,” and their replacement with the logic and dynamics of business. A particularly vivid example of this from Fisher’s native Britain is the conversion of universities from social into economic institutions.
With the introduction of student fees—and subsequent increases in those fees—British higher education is becoming marketized, recasting the college teacher as an incoherent hybrid of authority-figure and provider of customer services (a process far advanced in the United States). But, as Fisher points out, there is a paradox here: the exhortation that social (or previously social) institutions should perform as businesses rings hollow in the age of bailouts when not even businesses, it seems, are required to perform as businesses.
Another paradox is that neo-liberalism declares war on bureaucracy and regulation in both the public and the private sectors and yet, at the same time, it imposes regimes of targets, audits, reviews, and assessments that require armies of managers, consultants, inspectors, and evaluators to operate them—positions that are often created as frontline workers are being laid off. In a culture of permanent and unceasing performance measurement, symbols of achievement come to be valued over actual achievement, a phenomenon Fisher describes with terms such as “market Stalinism” and “bureaucratic anti-production.”
While business ontology and market Stalinism are neo-liberal contradictions, one area in which neo-liberalism has achieved outcomes congruent with its goals is in the disciplining of workers, as recorded in such indicators as work intensification and precarity. It could be argued that the resultant occupational stress may threaten a contradiction by forcing changes in work practices. But, drawing on the work of Dr. David Smail and others in the social materialist school of psychology, Fisher argues that neo-liberalism has dealt with this problem through the “privatization of stress,” which deflects attention away from the structural causes of stress in the workplace. Responsibility is devolved onto the stressed worker, who resorts to prescribed medication (which is to treat an environmental problem as a physiological one) or to psychotherapy (which is to classify the problem as attitudinal on the part of the patient).
To move away from the economy and the workplace, Fisher finds capitalist realism at work in the general culture, especially in hip hop music, the films of Quentin Tarantino, the comic books of Frank Miller, and the novels of James Ellroy. In stark contrast to the earlier socialist realism of Sinclair and others, these works can, in some instances, celebrate and, in others, nihilistically accept, the alienation, anomie, and increasing antagonism of contemporary life.
By definition, capitalist realism is a cultural and intellectual environment inimical to the re-emergence of an alternative politics. Nonetheless, the human predicament under the neo-liberalism it attempts to buttress demands alternatives. Fisher has not written a manifesto and he recognizes that there are alternatives to a weakened neo-liberalism that may prove to be no more congenial to the left. Does he have in mind the technocracies now being imposed on debt-burdened southern European states?
In Fisher’s view, the radical alternatives to neo-liberalism are those that aim to replace isolation and insecurity with solidarity and stability. And any such politics must adopt as its centerpiece the rehabilitation of the public interest—perhaps the idea most directly threatening to neo-liberalism.
Radicals will also have to sophisticate their anti-authoritarianism and recognize that the 1960s New Left, in treating all forms of authority with suspicion, helped to create a void that neo-liberalism was happy to fill with at least the appearance of consumer sovereignty. He urges the left to accept that there is nothing wrong with earned authority that rests on knowledge, expertise, experience, or achievement and that the revival of such authority could serve as a counterweight to the demotic race-to-the-bottom of the kind found in, for example, the contemporary media.
Fisher assigns unions a key function in reviving radical politics. He acknowledges their tendency to play defensive and unimaginative roles. He also concedes that industrial action in the public sector—now the mainstay of union organization—can often impose financial hardship on the strikers themselves, save the employers money, and alienate public support. As an example of the kind of unionism he envisions for the future, he suggests that public sector industrial action should take the form of non-compliance with what he identifies as “market Stalinism.”
In some respects, Capitalist Realism is simply a reworking of the familiar “false-consciousness” argument. Some readers may be put off by some tired Frankfurt School language such as “late capitalism.” As the radical international relations scholar Fred Halliday used to ask, “late for what?” But the book is a compelling analysis of neo-liberalism’s remarkable success in disguising its contradictions, and in defending as inevitable the injustices it creates. A more serious criticism may be that Fisher has underestimated the present system’s durability, as described by the sociologist Colin Crouch in his recent book The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism. But Fisher’s not-always-easy-to-read book is a valuable radical analysis of lived experience under contemporary capitalism—late or otherwise.
Peter Grosvenor, a British political scientist, is currently an associate professor at the Pacific Lutheran University.
Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen
Review by John Zavesky
As anyone who has followed Springsteen’s career and seen his pre-Born in the U.S.A. shows can tell you, the Boss is the hardest working white man in show business, a riff he copped from James Brown and playfully employed at the band’s Apollo gig. Spring- steen’s albums are a different matter.
It is nearly impossible to convey on an album the energy and sense of urgency that is part and parcel of a Springsteen performance. The best of them embody that spirit of the band. Wrecking Ball is among that group.
Springsteen is one of those honored few who have reached the pantheon of American rock and roots music. He comes from a decidedly blue collar background. His songs have celebrated factory workers and the disenfranchised, following in the footsteps of Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan. Springsteen has also penned some great rock songs that celebrated youth, fast cars, and the dream of playing in a rock band.
Wrecking Ball has a schizophrenic, déjà vu feel. It is part E St. Band rock, part Seeger Sessions Americana, part Nebraska folk with a dash of hip hop soul for good measure. The album opens with “We Take Care of Our Own,” where the listener is hit with a beat reminiscent of “Badlands” coupled with a synthesizer wail that sounds like something from an old “drop and cover” air-raid drill. The character in “Badlands” stood toe-to-toe with tough times and hard folks in order to claim a piece of the American dream. In Wrecking Ball, Springsteen has taken that same driving beat coupled with a sound that alerts the audience that something is wrong. America is no longer the “Promised Land.”
“Easy Money” follows and feels more like something from the Seeger Sessions. This is true of much of the album’s material, which is certainly not a bad thing as that period of Springsteen’s career was one of his finest. He had more or less taken off the mantle of rock impresario and explored Americana folk and roots with a vibrant sound. “Shackled and Drawn” is another that follows in that same manner. Both songs take a dim view of bankers and celebrate the downtrodden themes that are repeated throughout the album.
“Jack of All Trades” is another of those blue-collar folk songs Springsteen has penned for years after the Nebraska album. It certainly wouldn’t feel out of place if sandwiched between “Highway Patrolman” and “Open All Night.” It is a mournful tune with lyrics that bely the song’s instrumentation. This is something Springsteen does consistently and well throughout the album. “Death to My Hometown,” lyrically, has more in common with “My City in Ruins,” while instrumentally it carries all the mirth and joy of the Pogue’s performing an Irish jig.
The album’s title cut begins with just Springsteen and his guitar. The band jumps in for the bridge and the entire song takes off like a rock anthem from The River. “You’ve Got It” has a tasty hook that also feels like a return to the Boss’s glory days of the late 1970s.
“Land of Hope and Dreams” is the standout song on the album, one Springsteen has performed in concert for a number of years. The song features saxman Clarence Clemmons, something that clearly stands out as a missing and irreplaceable link in the E St. Band.
True, the album’s lyrics are not up to the caliber of “Darkness” or “Born to Run,” but then what artist ever matches their peak years when looking at a career that spans four decades? The Boss is a true rock icon who went back to the well and came up with an album of solid material. While the album may not have the same resonance of his earlier work, it clearly demonstrates that Springsteen is a serious heavyweight contender. When the dust settles and December rolls around, Wrecking Ball will certainly make the cut for one of this year’s best albums.
John Zavesky’s work has appeared in Z Magazine, Counterpunch, Palestine Chronicle, Dissident Voice, Los Angeles Times, and other publications.