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Against Springsteen

[ 129 ] December 11, 2012 |

According to Rolling Stone, Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball is the best album released this year. Why? Because of lyrics like:

Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bill.
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill.

They “rage at corporate oligarchy and economic injustice,” things at which I’m raging too, so I completely understand why Rolling Stone would think they’re good: it agrees with them. There’s only one problem: they’re not. The state of political rhetoric is such that feeble statements of solidarity pass for insight. We’ve traded genius for blandished agreement, resulting in a situation in which we praise people for writing:

There ain’t no help.
The cavalry stayed home.

I wouldn’t be complaining were it not for the fact that, of all people, it’s Springsteen they’re praising for rehashing tired polemic. Because part of the reason I’m lefter than I’ve any right to be is that this same Springsteen fellow once made me feel the anger and hopelessness to which he only here alludes. If you’ve never seen the debut performance of “The River,” do yourself a favor and do so right now. I can wait.

Granted, “The River” isn’t an explicitly political song–it’s decidedly lacking in policy statements–but it’s a far more compelling vision of what lives are like “on account of the economy” than the broadsides found on Wrecking Ball. Let’s start with the titular and abiding image: a river. What are rivers like? To trade one bard for another, here’s John McPhee on the Mississippi in his “Atchafalaya“:

Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side. Major shifts of that nature have tended to occur roughly once a millennium. The Mississippi’s main channel of three thousand years ago is now the quiet water of Bayou Teche, which mimics the shape of the Mississippi. Along Bayou Teche, on the high ground of ancient natural levees, are Jeanerette, Breaux Bridge, Broussard, Olivier—arcuate strings of Cajun towns. Eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, the channel was captured from the east. It shifted abruptly and flowed in that direction for about a thousand years. In the second century a.d., it was captured again, and taken south, by the now unprepossessing Bayou Lafourche, which, by the year 1000, was losing its hegemony to the river’s present course, through the region that would be known as Plaquemines. By the nineteen-fifties, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the Gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it.

The point being that rivers are forces of nature that even the Army Corps of Engineers can only control until the occasional Katrina. Going “down to the river,” as Springsteen’s narrator and compatriots do, is the contemporary equivalent of worshiping a mountain on account of its orogeny. It’s there and demands homage and besides where else are you going to go when that thing is there? The song begins with an idyllic, if limited, vision of life in America:

I come from down in the valley
where, Mister, when you’re young.
They bring you up to do, like your daddy done.
Me and Mary we met in high school,
When she was just seventeen.
We’d ride out of that valley, down to where the fields were green

That valley could be any valley, and the adjacent fields could be that green almost anywhere. There’s a little disillusioned defiance with the interjected “Mister,” letting you know that the tone of what follows is going to be a little belligerent. (You don’t “Mister” someone unless dudgeon’s on the rise.) Meaning that we have an annoyed narrator from a pastoral place, but at this point we have no idea why he’s annoyed. What did they do “[w]hen she was just seventeen”?

We’d go down to the river
And into the river we’d dive.
Oh, down to the river we’d ride

That’s the stuff of memories: he has his “Mary,” his “valley,” his “fields,” and he spent his time going “down to the river” and “div[ing]” in. Are we sure Mary’s name isn’t actually “Huck”?

Then I got Mary pregnant

We’re sure. But what happens to this little slice of an ideologically appealing America when Mary gets pregnant? I bet her nuclear family swarmed her with loving support and arranged a dream wedding and

Man, that was all she wrote.
And for my nineteenth birthday, I got a union card and a wedding coat.
We went down to the courthouse,
And the judge put it all to rest.
No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle,
No flowers, no wedding dress.

What happened to America, Man? Who exactly are you, Mister? In the space of two verses, Springsteen transformed America from an advertisement for the Shenandoah Valley into the urban pit in which affect scuttles to die. This verse begins with angry conjunctions: birthdays, which are supposed to be happy occasions, are conjoined by comma to a conjunctive clause whose necessity seems as unnecessary as the alliteration in this sentence, “a union card and a wedding coat.” That “and” there is deceptively correlative, as Springsteen’s delivery of the lyric hammers home: the narrator “got a union card and a wedding coat.” The vehemence that begins with the “and” encompasses the “wedding coat” in a way that makes it clear that the narrator resents the enforced necessity of this particular conjunction. Not that anything can be done about it. The flat affect Springsteen brings to the rest of the verse communicates that clearly: from “wedding coat” on his delivery is as listless as a trial transcript, and rightly so, since the narrator and Mary went “down to the courthouse,” where a “judge put it all to rest.” But what does that even mean?

The OED informs me that, by “put[ting] it all to rest,” the judge either “dispelled [their] fears” or “settled something (so as to be free of it).” Only he didn’t do either. The “something” that’s been “settled” here is amorphous mess of adolescent emotion that settles about as well as a biscuit cut from wet batter. It keeps its shape so long as it’s in the mold, but place it on a sheet and its edges bleed until its original form can’t be fathomed from the slop. That’s what marriage as a social convention is for: preventing the slop. But the narrator and Mary don’t experience marriage as a social convention so much as a bureaucratic one. Moreover, their ceremony is literally defined by the attributes it lacked: the “wedding day smiles,” “walk[s] down the aisle,” “flowers,” and “wedding dress[es]” to which the cruel world has said “No,” “no,” “No” and “no.” How does the couple celebrate this sterile occasion?

That night we went down to the river,
And into the river we dived.
Oh, down to the river, we did ride.

Of course they did. Except notice the difference between the first iteration of the chorus and this one. In the first, they “[would] go down to the river,” and “into the river [they would] dive,” and even though the contracted “would” marks the past tense, it’s expansive, in that it refers to multiple occasions in which they rode down and dove into the river. The openness of the phrasing is nostalgic. But the second time it comes around, the chorus refers to a specific time and ride and dive: their wedding night, which they marked by doing what they’d always done, only differently, deliberately. That night they “did ride.” Who “[does] ride” somewhere? People with a purpose “[do] ride” somewhere. Except the narrator and Mary “did ride” to a place that isn’t a place. (Don’t make me quote Heraclitus.) On the night in which they bound themselves together, permanently, they ventured out to the very image of impermanence itself: a flowing river in whose bed nothing settles, no matter what a judge says. I’m sure this’ll be a happy union.

Now all them things that seemed so important,
Well Mister they vanished right into the air.
Now I just act like I don’t remember,
Mary acts like she don’t care.

But at least they have their memories, right? The narrator only “act[s] like [he] don’t remember,” and Mary only “acts like she don’t care,” which suggests that they both actually do, which makes everything more horrible. At least it can’t get any worse.

But I remember us riding in my brother’s car,
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir.
At night on them banks I’d lie awake,
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take.

So he remembers, but the slight uptick in the tempo suggests a kind of resurgence, as if this memory is something he draws strength from despite the fact that “pull[ing] her close” is how his troubles started in the first place. The tense has expanded again: the contracted “would” no longer refers to a particular moment, but to composite memory of a life’s worth of them. This is good, right?

Now those memories come back to haunt me,
They haunt me like a curse.
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true,
Or is it something worse?

There is no good here. He’s not haunted by a single memory, but by a monstrous agglomeration of them. And it’s cursed. It’s not enough to double-down on the verb “haunt” in a repetitious construction that’s structured like a confession, these memories must “haunt [him] like a curse.” Which makes no sense, because curses don’t “haunt” people, they “follow” them. Unless, of course, these memories are just a dream, and that dream is just a lie that didn’t come true, in which case the curse is something worse. Therein lies the power of this lyric. It begins understandably enough, with memories haunting the narrator, but then the memories turn into a curse; then the narrator asks someone, presumably the “Mister” to whom the song’s addressed, a simple-sounding question that leads into a conceptual quagmire of horribleness. I could diagram that question for you, but it wouldn’t help because, fundamentally, it doesn’t make any sense. It evokes a state of confused desperation instead of detailing the circumstances of it, much like the monster in a horror film that’s far scarier when its figure is implied than when it appears on screen.

And as for that beacon of hope, the river? The narrator still goes down to it, “though [he] know[s] the river is dry.” His life has become an empty gesture of defiance. Why? On account of the economy. It’s a single phrase in a song whose power emanates from elsewhere, and yet it resonates far more soundly than “[i]t’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill.” Those who already agree with Springsteen will applaud him for that line. But people—ideology be damned—who listen to “The River”?

They might could be converted.


Comments (129)

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  1. Alan Tomlinson says:

    “Rock journalism is people who can’t write, writing about people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.”

    John McPhee writes wonderful prose, but I haven’t heard so much about his songwriting.


    Alan Tomlinson

  2. brewmn says:

    I’ve come to borderline hate Springsteen at this point in his career, but this post reminds me why there was a time when I deeply loved his music.

  3. Richard says:

    I’ll give you that the lyrics to Wrecking Ball aren’t up there with the best of Springsteen (because he, for the moment, has given up the detailed lyrics about specific individuals in favor of more general pronouncements) but I still rate the album as one of the very best of the year (along with JD McPherson, Mark Knopfler and Rodney Crowell)

    • Anonymous says:

      Agreed it’s a very good album, despite lyrics not being near to Springsteen’s best. And in fact, this post to the contrary, the lyrics are often pretty good.

      No one is praising Springsteen simply for writing the bland couplet about the cavalry, which SEK quotes in isolation as if its musical surroundings didn’t matter. Pop lyrics often involves cliches, and for good reason–they’re a way to achieve groundedness. It’s what you do with the cliches that matters.

      The force of “We take care of our own”, the killer song that has the couplet SEK hates, is the bitterness of the contrast between what the chorus and title promise and the reality the verses describe, Katrina reference and all. That few of the couplets stand on their own makes no difference to the effect.

      Also, as bad and predictably Rolling-Stoney as the Rolling Stone rankings are, they’re not as depressingly terrible as the AV Club’s, which bespeak complete aesthetic confusion.

    • Sherm says:

      Rodney Crowell

      Richard – are you referring to Kin? And I ask because you just gave me a good xmas gift idea for my father.

      • Richard says:

        Yes. One of the very best records of the year.

        • Sherm says:

          Just ordered it. Thanks.

          • Richard says:

            I think he’ll like it. Here’s the lyrics to one of my favorite songs on the record:

            I love to see them straw dogs ’round my door
            Come sneaking ’round my skirt tail looking for more
            If you ain’t running from the past
            You ain’t making my heart beat fast
            You ain’t chugging your paycheck
            You ain’t hugging on my neck

            Well, I’ve been looking for trouble from the git
            Them cowboys back where I come from won’t quit
            Cutting up tires on an oyster shell
            Siren screaming and he’s running like hell
            Momma’s on the front porch staring him down
            Ladies at the beauty shop coming unwound

            If the law don’t want you, neither do I
            I ain’t got no time to waste my shine
            On a puppet with a clip-on tie
            If the law don’t want you, neither do I

            I hired that boy to cut my grass
            Nailed down a shingle but it couldn’t get past
            Staring at the bottom of his low-slung pants
            Says he’s gonna take me to the big buck dance

            If the law don’t want you, neither do I

            I used to run wild down in Mexico
            Hair jacked up and necklines plunging low
            Some snake hip shirt rip giving me lip
            Rifling my purse and stealing my tips
            There’s something ’bout a man can affect that lean
            Keeping his hat all yanked down mean

            If the law don’t want you, neither do I
            Play born to lose and you light my fuse
            I’m a sucker for a bald-faced lie

    • Njorl says:

      He probably knew “hazy Davey”, “ragamuffin gunner”, “Rosalita” and the various other characters in his songs in some way, at least as fragments of real people’s personas. He probably never really meets anyone with an interesting story anymore. He only sees the groups – the unemployed, those made homeless from the storm etc.

      • Richard says:

        Good point. The fact is that Springsteen is a 63 year old man with three nearly grown kids and a very successful business organization. He’s going to meet people like himself, other musicians and people associated with the various causes he supports. He’s not going to meet people like his parents and his high school friends and the guys who hang out at the shore, the inspiration for his early songs. At 63, you’re going to write different type songs than when you were 25 or 30 or even 40 (and if he tried to write songs like he wrote back then, he would be panned for trying to recapture his youth).

        • JRoth says:

          I was fascinated, several years ago, when Dylan got in trouble in some Jersey town for roaming the streets anonymously before a concert. He freaked out the locals, but it answered for me a longtime question, which is how does someone like Dylan, who hasn’t lived anonymously in 50 years, glean any fresh experiences that aren’t through the prism of rock stardom and universal adulation.

          Apparently by roaming around like a creep. Good on him.

    • Right. I thought it was cool that Springsteen cut a legitimate album of protest music, at a time where it’s most needed. Wrecking Ball is far from perfect (that fakey hip-hop number Things Change, for example), but I’m not sure why you’d criticize him for not putting out another River when he was not trying to do that.

  4. thusbloggedanderson says:

    “Or is it something worse / that sends me down to the river,” etc., IIRC.

  5. mark f says:

    I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this later, but obviously Wrecking Ball is RS’s album of the year because Jann Wenner always fluffs his friends. This is a magazine that gave a forgettable Mick Jagger solo snoozer a five-star review.

  6. Joseph Slater says:

    I love a lot of Springsteen’s music, and he seems like a really good guy with his heart in the right place, but dang, yeah, I agree with this. It’s like when he sets out to Write A Big Important Song, he’s at his worst (I think much of “The Rising” is pretty mediocre as well).

  7. Joseph Slater says:

    P.S. “Youngstown” (original album version and rocking live version) and “Factory” are both way better as musical/political statements than anything on “Wrecking Ball.”

  8. Cols714 says:

    Why would you borderline hate Springsteen at this point in his career?

    The Rising and Magic were both solid albums. Wrecking Ball is hugely blunt and lacks some of the subtlety of his early albums but the music is still good.

    Or maybe it’s not, but I don’t see why this would lead to hatred. At the very least he’s not mailing it in and is still actively engaged.

    • brewmn says:

      I just don’t hear anything that’s better than a faint echo of his best work, now more than thirty years old (for the record, I think Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska and the one good album that should have been The River are his best).

      But ever since, he’s been straining so damned hard to be meaningful, that it all just grates on me. “Listen to me, man! I really, really give a shit!” And he never was that great musically to begin with. I’ve always felt he never had a clear musical (as opposed to lyrical) personality.

      And then, on top of all that, you’ve got the mooks who love “Bruuuuuuuce!”, and it all starts to bore the hell out of me and even begins to piss me off.

  9. Cols714 says:

    Since this is eventually going to devolve into what album is the album of the year I’m going with
    Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory

  10. Charles says:

    Alright, sure. Wrecking Ball doesn’t have a song as desolate and wonderful and horrible as “The River.” How many records in history do?

    Yes, it’s a little clunky. And yes, he’s trying to hard to say Big Things with platitudes. It’s still a damn good album, though. “Land of Hope and Dreams” is right up there with his best work (even if it is a decade old – it still fits very well into the current zeitgeist) and “Wrecking Ball” dials down the grandiose to tell a specific story. “We Are Alive” is good. “Rocky Ground” is rather silly but manages to work.

    The fact that Rolling Stone is run by idiots doesn’t make this a bad record. I’d put it in the top 5 of the year for sure.

  11. Malaclypse says:

    But people—ideology be damned—who listen to “The River”?

    They might could be converted.

    I was a young man when The River came out, living in the parts of Pennsyltucky where “liberal” is a dirty word. And everybody I know loved them some Springsteen. And the only ones who grew into liberals were me, and the guy who realized that government should play a role back when he got the cancer, without the insurance.

    • SEK says:

      I said “might could be.” It’s sympathetic identification, not indoctrination.

      • Malaclypse says:

        Fair enough. But I don’t think lyrics work that way. See, for example, Born In The USA.

        • SEK says:

          Not always, obviously. Some people are congenitally oblivious — we share this Earth with Althouse, after all — but I think this is how they can work, and likely even how they’re intended to.

          • mark f says:

            For example, here’sDan Foster at NRO arguing that “The River” and Bruce Springsteen are conservative because marginal tax rates were higher at the time of its writing (I guess the larger point is supposed to be that New Deal liberalism is to blame for all which Bruce laments). Key line: “It doesn’t even matter if I’m wrong about this.”

    • Colin says:

      I am under explicit orders to make sure that “The River” is played at my father’s funeral one day (save for the “getting a girl pregnant” part, it’s pretty much his youth in the industrial Ohio River valley as a young man). That song could indeed convert.

    • Elk says:

      What part of Pennsyltucky? The Springsteen fans I know from the northern tier didn’t become liberals but they didn’t become republican douches either. Mostly remained conservative hicks who like guns. They dont hate seem to hate unions or minorities which is an improvement over the average resident.

  12. wengler says:

    I hated Springsteen ever since he hugged Chris Christie.

  13. Ron says:

    I was and am a HUGE Springsteen performance fan, and love a bunch of his work, but have been left cold by everything basically since and including The Rising, so I certainly understand where you’re coming from.

    With that said, as a longtime fan (I’ll skip the bona fides) it seems to me to be cherry picking to compare anything else he’s ever done to The River and proclaim it wanting. I know it’s one man’s opinion, but I don’t think he’s ever written anything else with close to the emotional truth of that song. Along with Racing in the Streets, for me, it’s his portrayal of the women in these dead end relationships that work so well.

    She sits on the porch of her daddy’s house
    But all her pretty dreams are torn
    She stares off alone into the night
    With the eyes of one who hates for just being born

    Springsteen, at his best, understands why his male characters feel threatened and weak. He hates it, but he doesn’t blame anyone for the fact that there’s not much work “on account of the economy.” It’s only through the eyes of the women in his world that he understands that, when someone feels worthless, everyone around them feels helpless. The women in these songs cry out that the man they fell for doesn’t exist anymore, and they hate the world for the disappearance, even as they’re still rooting for the men to overcome.

    That’s an impossible standard to reach every time. I love Springsteen because he’s reached it more often than almost anybody else. But complaining that he didn’t do it this time comes off sounding like someone who complains, upon seeing the Manchester Madonna that it’s no Sistine Chapel.

    • SEK says:

      I cherry-picked by necessity. I could’ve written a 50,000 word long post on his early catalog, but that seemed excessive. That said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with praising someone for their best work. I’m not even sure it’s his best, as I’m partial, to put it mildly, to “Lost in the Flood.” That’s more on the strength of the performance, but I have a soft-spot for the word-play for it’s almost own sake.

      But I take your point.

  14. Sir Charles says:

    Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month,
    Ralph went out lookin’ for a job, but he didn’t find none,
    He came home to drunk from mixing Tangueray and wine,
    He got a gun, shot a night clerk and now they call him Johnny 99.

    and later

    Judge, judge I got debts no honest man can pay,
    The bank was holding my mortgage and was gonna take my house away,
    Now I ain’t saying that makes me an innocent man,
    But it was more than all this that put that gun in my hand.

    The River and Nebraska are, to my mind, two of the greatest examples of popular political art — Darkness and Born in the USA aren’t too shabby either — and they shine by being personal, specific, and non-doctrinal. See, e.g. Stolen Car and State Trooper. The politics are implicit and nothing reads like a manifesto.

    • Mike F. says:

      You should try and find a review of Nebraska that In These Times ran back in the day. The opening sentence IIRC was: “Bruce Springsteen has been trying to catch up with Walt Whitman for ten years, and he finally did”.
      The Road and The River are the American metaphors. No one put them to use quite like the Boss.

  15. Rick Massimo says:

    The greatest tweet of Election Night – I don’t know whether TBogg wrote it or it appeared on his live-Tweeting feed – was “Now can we stop pretending “We Take Care of Our Own” isn’t an awful song?”

  16. Manju says:

    The River’s haunting music accompanied by master storytelling make it a great tune…and that’s a fine performance of it.

    But when Bruce invited Monica to dance on stage with him, he singlehandedly created a discipline now known as White Studies. It’s time for Dancing in the Dark to get its due.

  17. Speak Truth says:

    They “rage at corporate oligarchy and economic injustice,” things at which I’m raging too…

    Wow! That’s pretty easy when you sit in that fat chair of your fat de facto government job. Indoor work and no heavy lifting. And then there’s the benefits.

    Pretty easy to “rage”…

  18. Being joe from Lowell, I naturally have an interest in the overlap between industrial-era class politics, music, and rivers.

    I have to say, Springsteen’s river imagery is all a muddle. They’ve in a valley, but they ride out of the valley to get to the river. Also, going out of the valley to get to the river means going down. Huh?

    Also, in an industrial town, the river isn’t the pristine, natural, god-like thing in the green fields, outside of town. It’s the cold, dark, dirty thing that you walk over when you cross the big iron bridge to get to your job.


    “London is burning and I, I live by the river.”


    “…with the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne.”

    Those are some some high-grade leftist river lyrics.

    • JRoth says:

      I was going to point this out. If one chose to argue that The River is incoherent, the geographical imagery provides ample ammunition. Among other things, rivers in the northeast (Springsteen’s default environment) simply don’t run dry. Creeks, maybe, sometimes, but rivers? Never ever. He might as well sing about the time the ocean receded from Asbury Park and it was 100 miles of continental shelf.

      I’m not trying to dismiss SEK’s analysis; I’m just pointing out that it’s incredibly easy to explain why works of literature (let alone pop songs) are hopelessly flawed. Half the evidence is usually tendentious.

  19. Ed says:

    The sense that Springsteen was having to affect his Man of the People persona was/is apparent as early as The River. This seems an inevitable development.

    To produce first-rate work for as long as Springsteen did is actually excellent going for a rock star so to say that he isn’t as good as he was decades ago is as pointless as it is obvious. He’s alive and well and producing some decent music. Accomplishments enough in his job at his age.

    And Springsteen was always prone to bombast, the flip side to his outsized ambition. Nothing new there.

    “Tunnel of Love” is underrated. Very interesting and uncharacteristic work.

  20. leo from Chicago says:

    “We Take Care of Our Own” is definitely the song of the year no matter how much SEK might want to cork up his ears.

    It’ll always remind me of that victory speech in Chicago on 11/6 (well, okay by that time, 11/7). The graffiti started blowing so heavily it was difficult to see and through the jubilation came the words, ‘Wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own’.

    I’ll never forget that.

  21. Dave says:

    I’ve never liked Springsteen because I think his music sucks. But from what I understand, I’m not typical when it comes to my preference for music or melody over lyrics, or at least the content of the lyrics.

    For instance, my favorite band is Van Halen. I don’t know what Dave was singing about most of the time. But his voice fit the awesomeness that was Eddie’s guitar. I still enjoy a few Ted Nuggent songs despite knowing he’s nuts. In short, give me a good riff over lofty lyrics. If I want good politics I come here.

  22. Eric W says:

    So the argument of the post is that Springsteen’s newest album isn’t the Album of the Year because it doesn’t compare to lyrics in his older albums? How is this an argument about what shoudl be Album of the Year?

    In any case, it’s a thoughtful, insightful piece on a fantastic song (“The River”). But I would very heavily, and I mean heavily, assert that “Wrecking Ball”, the song itself, is one of the the Boss’s very best songs. Maybe it’s because I was at the last concerts at the old Giants Stadium, or have lived in Jersey, or felt like things were utterly falling apart this year on a personal level, or what, but that song is effing amazing. The raising of defeat and obsolescence into a raucous flipping off of what life does to you. Amazing.

  23. 4jkb4ia says:

    “Badlands”, which I am on record as naming as a song I absolutely love, is before “The River” and has in the lyrics “Poor man wanna be rich, etc.” something as banal as what SEK has quoted. I think what SEK is getting at is at the time of Darkness and The River Bruce could still inhabit a character of his own imagination and by now, today, everything he is writing is for the character, Bruce. Because I’m supposed to be in mourning, I haven’t bought or heard Wrecking Ball yet.

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