Wednesday, February 22, 2012

First Impressions of Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” – Track #4 – “Jack of All Trades” - Listen Online for Free at...a foreign website?

To hype the March 6th release of his new album, Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen is releasing each of the record’s eleven tracks online, one per day, streaming for free at various music websites.  I’ll be giving you my first impressions – not reviews, mind you, as I’m not comfortable reviewing anything without hearing the full album – of each track as they are streamed.  Today, we’re looking at Track #4, “Jack of All Trades,” which is streaming for free all day exclusively at….a foreign website.  Hmm.  Nothing against them, I'm sure it's a great website,'s an interesting choice.  Anyway, it’s another great song, different than what’s come before, but a welcome change of pace.   

Read my thoughts on “Jack of All Trades” after the jump….

So far, Wrecking Ball has been a huge, sweeping, energetic album, and “Jack of All Trades” finally sees the music calming down, a perfect bit of sequencing that greatly helps the pacing.  Musically, there’s not too much to talk about.  It’s a slow, downtrodden waltz with minimal instrumentation, driven primarily by acoustic guitar and horns (provided by the great Ed Manion and Stan Harrison).  There’s also an excellent electric guitar solo at the end provided by Tom Morello that acts as a satisfying emotional release.  The track sounds very nice, and perfectly complements the mood of the lyrics.  The last three songs all dealt with similarly dark themes, but they had to be upbeat and energized to suggest the feisty, “never-say-die” attitude of the singer. 

The character in “Jack of All Trades” has no such pretensions.  Whatever career he had in his past life, those days are long gone, and he’s taken to doing whatever work “God provides” to make end’s meet.  I wonder if the character is inspired by Springsteen’s father, who worked many different jobs after the local factory shut down to support his family.  People sometimes wonder how Bruce can so expertly place himself in the mindset of a middle-class worker, but he spent his entire childhood observing this sort of sad, wandering work ethic in his father.  “Factory,” from Darkness on the Edge of Town, was inspired by his dad, and “Jack of All Trades” could easily be its sequel song.

There are six verses, and they all follow a rigid structure: three lines, illustrating the man’s life or expressing an ideal, ending with the lyric “I’m the Jack of All Trades, we’ll be alright.”  This recurring line, combined with the melancholy atmosphere, sees Springsteen returning to one of his oldest themes: the idea of an enforced class system that creates an institutional unhappiness in the hearts of those struggling to get by.  The jack of all trades has accepted his lot in life, and is well aware that no matter how hard we works, things aren’t going to change.  He chants “we’ll be alright” not as an expression of hope, but because his standard for what constitutes “alright” have been drastically lowered.  To me mind, all he means by saying “we’ll be alright” is “we’ll still be here.”  He exists only to continue, and since he knows how the system works, he’s sure that continuing is the best he can hope for:

“The banker man grows fatter, the working man grows thin
It's all happened before and it'll happen again
It'll happen again, they'll bet your life
I'm a Jack of all trades and, darling, we'll be alright.”

On prior Springsteen albums dealing with similar subject matter, like Nebraska, I’d expect the song to end there, on the fourth verse.  But Springsteen isn’t painting a portrait of abject despair on this album.  The jack of all trades has accepted his place in the economic hierarchy, but he’s also an older, wiser man than the characters on Nebraska; he’s observed enough of the world during his life that he still holds some hope in his heart:

“Now sometimes tomorrow comes soaked in treasure and blood
Here we stood the drought, now we'll stand the flood
There's a new world coming, I can see the light
I'm a Jack of all trades, we'll be alright.”

He and others have been through all this before, just as their ancestors did generations ago (I imagine the “drought” references the dust bowl), and maybe, just maybe, there will be a “new world” on the horizon.  Not that he holds out much hope.  If that vision is to come true, it’s a long way off, and the final verse returns us to the present with one of the angriest lyrics on the album:

“So you use what you've got, and you learn to make do
You take the old, you make it new
If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight
I'm a Jack of all trades, we'll be alright.”

For now, things are the way they are, but the Jack wouldn’t mind getting even with the “bastards” who ruined his life and the lives of those around him.  Just as he has on the last two tracks, Springsteen highlights the injustices on Wall Street, how the amoral bankers and financiers who stole billions from the American people while crashing the world economy didn’t do a day of jail time.  Before anyone jumps to conclusion, Springsteen isn’t advocating violence here any more than he did in “Nebraska” or “Johnny 99.”  He’s simply putting himself in the mindset of his character, and that kind of raw, militant anger – anger a lot of us are feeling – is a crucial part in fleshing out the Jack’s everyman qualities. 

Another excellent song.  The portrait Springsteen is illustrating on this album is getting more compelling with every passing second. 

Come back tomorrow for my take on Track #5, “Death to My Hometown”


Track 4. “Jack of All Trades” - Today
Track 5. “Death to My Hometown” (2/23)
Track 6. “This Depression” (2/24)
Track 7. “Wrecking Ball” (2/27)
Track 8. “You’ve Got It” (2/28)
Track 9. “Rocky Ground” (2/29)
Track 10. “Land of Hope and Dreams (3/01)
Track 11. “We Are Alive” (3/02)

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