WRECKING BALL Bruce Springsteen (Columbia)
AGNOSTIC HYMNS & STONER FABLES Todd Snider (Aimless Records)
Never has economic ruin sounded so compelling.
Two singer/songwriters -- one with a big budget, deep pockets, and iconic artistic standing; the other a scrapper drilling deep into the torn and frayed world of the have-nots -- released albums Tuesday that focus on remarkably similar themes:
The banking crisis. The role of religion and redemption in our pressurized lives. Scraping by on meager wages. The seething anger of living in a country where it always seems like someone's doing better than you. Injustice and depression, hope and betrayal, fear and violence.
Bruce Springsteen and Todd Snider tackle identical subject matter and both set out with specific agendas that provide standards by which their albums should be judged.
Springsteen has said his work is "about judging the distance between American reality and the American dream -- how far is that at any given moment?"
For Snider, the goal is more subversive. "I want to inspire [people] to leave home, to do things traditionally considered wrong. If you listen to my record and vandalize your school, godspeed."
So the Boss kicks off his 17th studio album "Wrecking Ball" with the booming, much-analyzed "We Take Care of Our Own," an easy-to-misinterpret call-to-arms that raises the question of whether we really do take care of our own.
Snider starts his disc with the acid-tinged anti-organized religion tale "In the Beginning" that features a story about a trickster in the days of Adam and Eve who persuades poor people to do his work. Religion is a weapon in this world and the dark, brooding story-song concludes with the observation that it's a shame that "... we still need religion to keep the poor from killing the rich."
And so it goes with both artists as they take on the issues of the day and raise a fundamental question: How much does anyone want to listen to and revisit such topical material? It's one thing to tackle tough times in music, but the challenge is the degree to which this stuff can be made entertaining.
Springsteen especially takes risks in that regard. Working in a format that is similar to his "Seeger Sessions" disc from 2006, he features plenty of horns, elaborate vocal arrangements, and virtually no electric guitar to support lyrics that are dead serious. The result is that even when the disc kicks up frenetic energy on tracks such as "Easy Money," "Shackled and Drawn," or the fantastic, venomous "Death to My Hometown" it never really rocks.
With more than 30 musicians on hand, at times it feels as if there's a blanket over the music, and immediacy and intimacy are sacrificed in an effort to make grandiose points musically and lyrically. Springsteen and co-producer Ron Aniello layer the echo and effects almost to a fault.
Contrast that approach with Snider's "Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables," which was recorded in just three days. It's a low-fi, stripped down affair that keeps the lyrics from the self-described "small-time entertainer" front and center.
"New York Banker" gets down and dirty with the banking crisis and concludes in the repetitive sing-song chorus, "Good things happen to bad people." On "Precious Little Miracles" he offers a withering, trenchant take on the hypocrisy of a culture that sells its young people out economically and then wonders why they're committing crimes.
Where Springsteen seems to think in big pictures with aspirations of making universal statements, Snider -- an East Nashville singer/songwriter who has released 12 albums -- has long picked at the fringes of culture's fabric through wisecracking songs like "Beer Run" or "Conservative Christian Right-Wing Republican Straight White American Males."
In the end they both end up at the same place, with protagonists who are as likely to shoot their perceived enemies as make peace with them, but that's where they diverge from the similarities. By mid-album, "Wrecking Ball" veers down an earthy, sacred path that is steeped in gospel and uplifting spiritual messages. On the title track Springsteen repeats the refrain "hard times come and hard times go" over and over, as if to say this is all just a phase that we'll pull out of together.
Snider concludes with a dirty, dark blues track called "Big Finish" that includes the biting, honest line "it ain't the despair that gets you, it's the hope."
For his part, Springsteen likely feels a responsibility to measure that distance between the American dream and reality and offer a message that is uplifting and buoyant. After all, a lot of people are listening to what he has to say.
Snider, though, is operating on different terrain that is more personal and likely more desperate, which makes "Wrecking Ball" and "Agnostic Hymns" perfect musical bookends for our times.
Contact Rod Lockwood at email@example.com or 419-724-6159.