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SXSW preview: Springsteen as keynote speaker

Peter Mongillo

Which Bruce Springsteen will we see when the 62-year-old musician delivers the South by Southwest Music conference keynote on Thursday? The fist-pumping populist? The American poet? The outspoken politician? With 17 studio albums under his belt, Springsteen's covered a lot of ground.

If his new album, "Wrecking Ball," is any indication, Springsteen continues to find inspiration from most, if not all, the work he's produced during his career. It's a survey of sorts, reflections on difficult economic times through the lens of the many different voices of the Boss (though nothing that quite approaches the sparse, jazzy shuffle or freewheeling poetry of his first couple of records).

Some, but not all, of the E Street Band contributes, including drummer Max Weinberg and late saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who has solos on two tracks. It's bittersweet, as this is the final album that will include contributions from the Big Man, though, as Springsteen says in the liner notes, "Clarence doesn't leave the E Street Band when he dies; he leaves when we die."

That being said, this isn't an E Street Band album, and not all of it works, in part because some of the material serves as too much of a reminder of other, better times. Enough works to allow Springsteen to continue to avoid turning into a nostalgia act, something that not many others in his class have managed.

When it does work, it's sad, and it's Springsteen at his best — developing characters. On "Jack of All Trades," Springsteen's protagonist tries to be reassuring in the face of hard times: "Honey we'll be alright," he sings, not entirely sure himself. The song recalls the slower fare from "Darkness on the Edge of Town." There are people here to care about rather than just an assembly of catch phrases.

A few songs on "Wrecking Ball" look back to more recent times in Springsteen's career. "Death to My Hometown" and "American Land," with growling vocals over bombastic, Irish-style folk, immediately recall 2006's "Seeger Sessions." Closer "American Land" isn't quite as dark as the Boston/Irish punks the Dropkick Murphys, but its myth-of-America, "diamonds on the sidewalks" lyrics, accordions and a huge, multiperson, beer-swilling chorus, somehow works. It's simple, it doesn't feel forced, and it's fun.

On the other hand, opener and widely played single "We Take Care of Our Own" is a sort of a "Born in the U.S.A." redux, a big, poppy E Street sound with lyrics that might sound patriotic on the exterior but reveal a darker struggle within. In theory it's not a bad idea, but it's a road Springsteen has gone down before. It's also something he's done better. Unlike "Born," it never focuses enough to see the people at the refinery or elsewhere. Rather, it hovers around in the abstract, a reference to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy at the Superdome about as close up as it gets.

It's unfair to expect everything to be perfect, even from someone like Springsteen, who has had moments of perfection during his career. There is enough here, however, to reinforce his position as a relevant musician and make whatever he's going to say Thursday worth hearing.

Contact Peter Mongillo at 445-3696

Updated 8:11 p.m. with information on who can attend the keynote