Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Analyzing Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” Bonus Tracks – Are “Swallowed Up” and “American Land” worth your time?

Happy Wrecking Ball day everybody!

Today marks the release of Bruce Springsteen’s seventeenth studio album – his first in over three years – and if you haven’t heard yet, I think it’s wonderful.  In addition to my full review, I’ve performed an in-depth, track-by-track analysis of the entire album, and you’ll find links to those articles at the bottom of this post.

Today I’m here to finish up the job.  See, Wrecking Ball is available in two configurations: a regular edition – just the 11-track album, no frills, available on CD, Digital, and Vinyl – and a special edition with two Bonus Tracks, available on CD and Digital.  Since I already analyzed every track of the main album, it’s only fair I give you my thoughts on these bonus tracks as well, “Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale)” and “American Land.”  How do they hold up next to the album proper?  Are they worth the extra money it will take to purchase them? 

Find out after the jump…

Looking at the songs Bruce Springsteen chooses to leave off his albums is often as fascinating as analyzing the albums themselves.  He’s an incredibly – some might say compulsively – prolific writer, and classics like Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River were whittled down from an unbelievably vast pool of recordings.  As far as I know, nothing has been said about how many songs were considered for Wrecking Ball, but the Special Edition bonus tracks do give us some healthy insight into how Springsteen focused the finished album, much like Deleted Scenes on a DVD help us understand how a film’s final edit is constructed. 

Sadly, though, “Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale)” is not a good song.  I wouldn’t necessarily call it bad, but by Springsteen’s standards, it’s certainly problematic.  There are some nice, illustrative lyrics, but the music itself it too turgid and monotonous to be engaging.  Springsteen sings every line with the same slow, somber inflection, drawing each word out to its breaking point, while the main guitar and drum licks repeat ad nauseam; even the new instrumental elements that come in near the end, such as a bassoon and backing vocals, don’t liven things up, but instead come across as awkward and, to my ears, unpleasant.  I appreciate the strong sense of atmosphere the music creates, but at five-and-a-half minutes, there’s far too little variation to hold my interest.

If the music sounds like purgatory, though, that’s only a reflection of the lyrics, which use nautical imagery to describe a lost, defeated sense of hopelessness:

“The bones of sailors from the north and sailors from the east

Lay high in a pyre in the belly of a beast

A beast should you wander in its path, upon your ship and your flesh he'll sup

You'll disappear from this world 'til you've been swallowed up”

It’s a song about the voiceless, those who suffer the worst at the hands of society’s whims and are forever ignored.  Viewed in the American economic context much of Wrecking Ball is about, the song clearly represents how many struggling Americans feel these days: the beast is the recession, it swallowed them up, and there are political forces that would prefer to let them ‘disappear from this world’ for good:

“We trusted our skills and our good sails

Our faith that with God the righteous in this world prevail

But we've been swallowed up
We've been swallowed up

Disappeared from this world

We've been swallowed up”

The idea is certainly found in the subtext of Wrecking Ball, and while “Swallowed Up” in unique in clarifying the point, I agree with Springsteen’s artistic judgment in leaving it off the album.  It would clash – both thematically and musically – with “This Depression,” also somber, hopeless, and wandering.  The spot “This Depression” inhabits is really the only place I can imagine “Swallowed Up” going, but even there, it would suck far too much energy out of the album to be worth the effort.  The beauty of “This Depression” is that it expresses many of the same ideas while maintaining the record’s flow and vitality.

In any case, while I’m unlikely to listen to “Swallowed Up” much, if at all, in the future, I am glad I heard it, if only as a scholarly curiosity. 

“American Land,” on the other hand?  I wouldn’t give this track up for anything.  In fact, it might just be one of my favorite Springsteen studio recordings of all time. 

But first some history: Like “Wrecking Ball” and “Land of Hope and Dreams,” “American Land” should be well known to Springsteen fans.  He’s been performing it regularly in concert since the 2006 “Seeger Sessions Band Tour,” and live cuts were released on the Special Edition of We Shall Overcome and the Live in Dublin concert album.  In the liner notes of the former, Springsteen says “American Land” is “An original song inspired by “He Lies in the American Land,” a poem by immigrant steelworker Andrew Kovaly and set to music by Pete Seeger.” 

I’ve loved the song since I first heard it; “American Land” is the biggest of big band pieces, the “Seeger Sessions” folk sound opened up to its fullest and most exciting.  The lyrics express the enthusiasm and promise that drove immigrants to this country, all of it charmingly exaggerated:

“Over there all the women wear silk and satin to their knees

And children, dear, the sweets, I hear, are growing on the trees

Gold comes rushing out the rivers straight into your hands

When you make your home in the American land

There's diamonds in the sidewalk, the gutters lined in song

Dear, I hear that beer flows through the faucets all night long

There's treasure for the taking, for any hard working man

Who'll make his home in the American land”

Thematically, it bears more than a passing resemblance to “Land of Hope and Dreams,” as both are sung in character from the perspective of an eager immigrant.  “American Land” lacks the gospel overtones and is colored by its celebratory atmosphere, of course, but where it truly differs is in the final verses.  Here, Springsteen makes his point about how integral Immigrants were – and remain – in the construction of this nation, and highlights our perpetual disdain for them as wildly hypocritical:

“I docked at Ellis Island in the city of light and spire

I wandered to the valley of red-hot steel and fire

We made the steel that built the cities with the sweat of our two hands

We made our home in the American land

They died building the railroads, they worked to bones and skin

They died in the fields and factories, names scattered in the wind

They died to get here a hundred years ago, they're still dying now

Their hands that built the country we're always trying to keep out”

In short, it’s easy to see why “American Land” was recorded for, and ultimately excluded from, Wrecking Ball: It’s one of Springsteen’s greatest musical expressions of how America fails to live up to its own shining promise.  I’m sure that Springsteen recorded this and “Land of Hope and Dreams” intending to use just one of them, since they inhabit such similar thematic space, and he made the right call in going with “Hope and Dreams.”  “American Land” doesn’t have the same room for interpretation and re-contextualization that makes “Dreams” such a powerful emotional crescendo on the record, and its discussion of immigration lies just outside what Wrecking Ball, on the whole, is about.  Springsteen has devoted two very good albums to modern Immigration issues – The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust – and while I love hearing what he has to say about it, Wrecking Ball is focused on domestic struggles, and none of the characters are travellers.  An “immigrant song,” as Springsteen has called “American Land” in the past, would be slightly out of place. 

But my God am I happy Springsteen included this recording as a bonus track, because “American Land” has never sounded as alive and forceful as it does here.  Few Springsteen tracks have, actually – there is a passion, immediacy, and startling ferocity to this cut that absolutely blew me away.  The intensity is there from the opening moments, when Springsteen draws out the drum opening – now arrestingly forceful – much longer than live versions did, holding the listener on the edge of their seat until the classic violin lick comes in.  When the full assortment of instruments enters a few bars later, it’s like you’ve been dropped right into the middle of the studio; the sound is big, sweeping, entirely enveloping, and – excuse my momentary lapse in intelligent criticism – incredibly awesome!!!

It continues like this for the entire song: every single musician, from Springsteen’s vocals and guitar to Soozie Tyrell’s violin to Charlie Giordano’s organ to the mighty Max Weinberg himself on drums, play as if there’s no tomorrow, like this is the last moment they’ll ever have to show off their skills and are determined to go out guns blazing.  It’s simply an epic performance, one of the grandest, most exhilarating moments in Springsteen’s catalogue; it reminds me of the sheer, blinding excitement I felt when I first heard “Prove it All Night” or “Born to Run.”  The song sets its hooks immediately, consuming your conscious mind until the very end.  “American Land” always sounded good in concert, but this studio version takes it to a whole new level.

In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that as a pure musical experience, “American Land” is my favorite Wrecking Ball recording.  I’m glad it’s not part of the actual album, and there are other songs I’m fonder of or tracks I find more meaningful, but for sheer musical power, it’s hard to top “American Land.” 

And so we reach the big question…is the Wrecking Ball Special Edition worth the cost of admission?  

I’m inclined to say yes, if only because “American Land” is so brilliantly performed.  But unless studying what separates an “album pick” from an “outtake” fascinates you, I doubt most listeners will get anything out of “Swallowed Up,” and some fans may be satisfied with the live cuts of “American Land” they already have.  There is a real chance that the Bonus Tracks simply won’t do anything for you.  All that being said, the difference in price between the regular and special editions is so minor that, on balance, I’m recommending the Special Edition.  On iTunes, you’ll only pay two dollars more for the Special Edition, and while the difference is a little bit bigger between the CD versions, you’ll also get much nicer packaging for the extra bucks.  In either case, I personally wouldn’t be deterred by the expense, and I imagine most costumers won’t regret going with the Special Edition. 

Read my in-depth, track-by-track breakdown and analysis of Wrecking Ball here:


  1. Swallowed Up was a hair stand on back/give chills type of moment for me..

    I think it was an incredible recording, and I will treasure it for years..
    It totally fits in with the album's themes, and perfectly--just perfectly--fits in as a coda to We Are Alive. I see it as a kind of hidden track in the vein of The Wrestler and Terry's Song (although those were free). But I certainly don't mind spending a few extra bucks to get it. It's a gem recording for me. Better than those tracks mentioned, and one of best, chilling recorded moments. Could have been on Nebraska.

    So, obviously I think you are way off on this.

  2. I agree with the last post. Swallowed Up is one of my very favorite songs on this cd. I play it much more than American Land, You've Got It, Land of Hopes and Dreams, or Shackled and Drawn. It's atmospheric and chilling, and shouldn't have been a bonus track (I think You've Got It should have been a bonus track; that song feels like a throw-away).