Wednesday, February 29, 2012

First Impressions of Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” – Track #9 – “Rocky Ground” - Stream this wonderful Gospel-flavored tune at NPR

Photo Credit: Telegraph UK

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 enter the home stretch with track #9, the highly spiritual “Rocky Ground” – streaming for free today at NPR – which in my interpretation is the first piece of an extended, three-part finale to this incredible album.

Read my thoughts on “Rocky Ground” after the jump….

Of all the songs on Wrecking Ball, “Rocky Ground” may be the most challenging.  It absolutely cannot be analyzed without considering its context and placement on the album, where it kicks off the most intensely spiritual stretch of music Bruce Springsteen has ever written (including the last tracks of The Rising).  Just two songs earlier, the title track introduced the album’s core message: that the human soul is indestructible.  Springsteen will circle back to and expand upon the significance of this concept in the final song, “We Are Alive,” but in between those two points, he has to establish why the soul carries such strength, and that’s where “Rocky Ground” and the subsequent track, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” comes in.  They function as a grand, two-part piece – unified by the presence of the Victorious Gospel Choir and soloist Michelle Moore – that poignantly explain the simple reasoning behind Springsteen’s faith in the human spirit: the soul is strong because it has the capacity for hope.     

This idea becomes much clearer once we get to “Land of Hope and Dreams,” but the theme is present in “Rocky Ground” as well.  The song expresses the deep-seated pain of a group of people so battered down by life that their only way to endure is to believe in the promise of a better tomorrow, with Springsteen heavily implying that, given the way things are going, that bright new day may not come in this life.  It’s largely a gospel piece, with the lyric “We’ve been travelling over rocky ground” repeated over and over by Michelle Moore and the choir, while Springsteen himself delivers the verses:

“Rise up shepherd, rise up

Your flock has roamed far from the hills

The stars have faded, the sky is still

The angels are shouting ‘Glory Hallelujah’”

“Forty days and nights of rain have washed this land

Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand

Find your flock, get them to higher ground

Flood waters rising and we're Caanan bound”

Springsteen’s performance is just as important, if not more so, than the actual content of the lyrics, for his singing adds a crucially sad, weary atmosphere to the piece.  The lyrics play with biblical imagery, referencing a great flood, Caanan, and the Promised Land, implying that despite great hardship, a greater reward is lying just ahead on the horizon.  Read on their own, the lyrics sound hopeful, but Springsteen’s singing isn’t; he – or, at least, his character – no longer has faith in these spiritual concepts, and is grieving that, at least in this life, he will most likely not see better days. 

It’s important to recognize that Springsteen is not singing as an individual, but as a representative of a much larger group.  Whereas previous tracks largely focused on individuals, “Rocky Ground” uses the pronoun “we,” “flock” imagery, and a large, powerful choir to illustrate suffering as a communal experience, both on a micro and macrocosmic level.  In one sense, the economic and political hardships of modern Americans are shared by a vast majority; it’s easy to imagine the singers of “Easy Money,” “Shackled and Drawn,” “Jack of All Trades,” and “Death to My Hometown” joining in on the chorus.  Viewed in the larger framework I believe Springsteen is operating in, we all travel over “Rocky Ground” in our lives, and we all reach a point where it becomes very, very difficult to maintain hope. 

The people in the song reach this conclusion as well; after four verses, Michelle Moore steps away from the choir to sing a Rap verse that verbally expresses the lack of faith Springsteen’s vocals previously suggested:

“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 you 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 silence now meets your prayers

The morning breaks, you awake but no one's there”

Before we move on, I should probably address the fact that Bruce Springsteen has, in fact, recorded a song with a rap verse in it.  My message to those of you who take issue with this: get over it.  The majority of the complaints I’ve seen about this verse seem to come from listeners who refuse to accept Rap as a legitimate musical art form and therefore fail to understand why Springsteen included it.  Much of the beauty of Wrecking Ball is that it mixes together all sorts of seemingly divergent musical styles: Rock n’ Roll, Gospel, Folk, Blues, etc.  Rap is no more jarringly different from Rock as Gospel is, and to my ears, Springsteen and producer Ron Aniello have synthesized all these types of music quite effectively.  The benefit of Rap in this particular moment is that it is direct and confrontational in a way Gospel, Rock, and Folk are not, and these lyrics are meant to be exceptionally direct.  This isn’t Springsteen being subtle: it’s Springsteen coming right out and questioning faith itself, and given how far this record has come in examining the journey of the soul – and how much further it has to go – it’s a question that needs to be posed in no uncertain terms. 

This directness contributes to the power of the song’s ending.  Despite the group reaching a low-point in their faith, they continue to sing the chorus: “We’ve been travelling over rocky ground, rocky ground…”  By continuing, they indicate a willingness to let their faith endure, even though it’s been greatly shaken.  Springsteen’s ‘character’ even starts to begin coming around; in between each repetition of the chorus line, he sings “there’s a new day coming,” and each time he does so, it’s with more and more conviction.  As bad as these people’s lives have become, as little reason as they have to hold faith in their hearts, they still endure, and they still hope…

…and that hope is going to provide fuel, fuel for a train that will bring these characters and their spiritual journey to a worthy destination in the album’s grand, rousing climax, “Land of Hope and Dreams.” 

But we’ll talk about that one tomorrow.  For now, I’ll just say that “Rocky Ground” is a beautiful, moving, powerful piece of music, one that I’ve enjoyed exponentially more with each subsequent listen.  It’s a symbol of everything Springsteen aspires to on this incredible album, and without it, Wrecking Ball would be nothing. 

Come back tomorrow for my take on Track #10, “Land of Hope and Dreams”


Track 9. “Rocky Ground” - TODAY
Track 10. “Land of Hope and Dreams (3/01)
Track 11. “We Are Alive” (3/02)


  1. I have to say that day after day and song after song you run deeper and higher in your understanding of the album.
    And the same I do.
    I hate Rap, I don't understand it and the most similar thing to it that I ever bought it is the LP "3 Feet Up and Rising" of De La Soul. More than twenty years ago...
    But I love Rocky Ground, more and more, and I think that Michelle Moore plays here the role of Clarence, her rap interlude is for me like the sax solo in Jungleland, The voice of an torn and wounded soul.
    Thanks again Jonathan.

  2. You're very welcome, Luca! Thank you for such kind comments! They mean a lot!

  3. I find your comments be to be very thought provoking and insightful. Thank you.


  4. I also found your comments insightful, and I appreciate how much they've added to my understanding of this album.