Working On A Dream

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia, 2009

http://www.brucespringsteen.net

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/10/2009

One of the things I love about my wife is the way she’s able to cut right to the heart of an issue – for example, when she got in the car with me the other night with this album playing, listened for a couple of songs, and abruptly announced: “Bruce, you’re getting old.”

And there you have it.  In a career during which Springsteen has frequently acted his age, but has rarely sounded less than vital, on Working For A Dream he makes an album that often sounds like it was recorded by a man nearing 60.  Where so much of Springsteen’s work is full of propulsive forward motion of one sort or another, this album constantly looks back.  It’s a wistful, nostalgic collection of songs featuring several tracks layered with strings and stacked harmonies that feel like Bruce wallowing self-indulgently in the comfort-food early-60s-pop of Magic ’s “Girls In Their Summer Clothes.” 

Much like in that song, you can feel a melancholy running through these tracks, an insecurity felt mostly in the way they’ve been packed with dense layers of sound.  There’s nothing raw or powerful about this E Street Band album; it feels much of the time like Bruce and producer Brendan O’Brien are going to great lengths instead to dress these songs to the nines and try to make them pretty.  Right there is a huge problem; Bruce’s voice is a lot of things, but it’s never been pretty.  Pretty, in plain fact, doesn’t really work for Bruce.

Which is not to say the album is a complete stiff.  The lyrics aren’t among Springsteen’s best, but they aren’t among his worst, either.  He remains a keen observer of human foibles, and on the musical side it must be said that “My Lucky Day” might be Bruce’s strongest hook in years; certainly the people who’ve compared its instant appeal to “Hungry Heart” are on the money.  An album full of this kind of energy, drive, and impact would have been a definite winner.

If only it were so, but it isn’t.  The disc falters before it really starts as Springsteen sabotages himself by shoving aside the obvious opener “My Lucky Day” in favor of the overlong and overcooked Old West pseudo-epic “Outlaw Pete.”  There are a couple of good lines, but they don’t alter the fact that this is a strange, eight-minute near-parody of a western outlaw song, with clip-clopping rhythms interrupted by the existential plea “Can you hear me?” as if Bruce was trying to put spurs on The Who’s iconic Tommy, a man untethered from the world and searching for connection. Two words: nice try.

The title track is – let’s just go ahead and say it -- a Brian Wilson song in every sense save that Bruce is singing it.  It’s a pleasant enough lyric, but – and here’s the issue at the core of this album – it ultimately has little impact.  On an awful lot of Springsteen’s albums, even the ones all about New Jersey street rats, the lyrics feel significant, whether because of their poetry or because of the moral heft of their subject matter.  There is something powerful, even visceral about the best of them.  There is nothing visceral about this album.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

For an illustration, look no further than the next cut, “Queen Of The Supermarket.”  Fountains Of Wayne would play this song as a supermarket version of “Yolanda Hayes,” straight on the surface but with a big, obvious wink audible underneath.  Springsteen never even hints at a wink; he’s in love with a shy supermarket checker and he sings of that love with dead-serious conviction as the strings layer and the harmonies stack and I’m left wondering if I’m supposed to be laughing, or cringing, or what.

What’s oddest in this moment is that it almost seems like the notoriously neurotic and meticulous Springsteen is suddenly fine with making an entire album of the kind of misfit-toy-type cuts that populated his massive leftovers box set Tracks.  In fact, it almost seems like that’s what he’s going for, like he’s decided he doesn’t need to make “important” albums anymore and can just play.  In that sense, my hat’s off to the guy; he’s loosened up, he’s comfortable in his own skin and making the music he feels like making, it’s just that the music he feels like making has no edge to it; there was more at stake lyrically in the otherwise unremarkable Human Touch than here.

The middle section of the album is where this becomes crystal clear.  You get a feeling for what he’s reaching for with “This Life” – that big glossy Phil Spector uplifting-harmonies thing.  Unfortunately, not even a sweet Clarence Clemons sax solo and layered Mamas-and-Papas-style ba-ba-bas can change the reality that this song veers dangerously close to Neil Diamond territory.  Yeah, I said it; Neil frigging Diamond. 

It’s a relief, then, when he comes in on the next track (“Good Eye”) with a dense, heavy blues full of growly, echoey vocals and wailing harmonica that reminds you of the dark vibe of Lucky Town’s “Souls Of The Departed,” albeit without the thundering electric guitars.  It’s a highlight, a truly different and distinctly gritty moment on an album that’s otherwise too lightweight… as evidenced by “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a pedestrian country-folk number that sounds like a Seeger Sessions outtake overdressed with out-of-place strings.  “Life Itself” finds drummer Max Weinberg sounding seriously bored, but at least it’s an easier listen than “Kingdom Of Days,” where Bruce declares his utter contentment with love, life and the world while backed by a string arrangement that makes “overwrought” sound like a compliment.

Next up, “Surprise, Surprise” is an old-school pop song whose rhythm guitar line sounds like it was lifted out of a Dion & The Belmonts track circa 1961.  Overall the track is well-done, endearing and fun, but the fact that it’s one of the best songs on this album tells you a lot.  It’s cute, and Bruce Springsteen has typically aimed a lot higher than cute. 

Ah, but what’s a Springsteen album without a shot at redemption?  And Bruce does come through at the end.  “The Last Carnival” is a gorgeous, heartfelt tribute to fallen bandmate Danny Federici (lost to skin cancer last March) that deftly evokes the boardwalk life they experienced together as young musicians starting out in Asbury Park a lifetime ago.  Bonus track “The Wrestler” is a nice piece of work as well, and shows how skilled Springsteen has become at writing for the screen; he’s done it a lot in the last 20 years and has adapted well to that stark, sweeping, melodramatic style.

In the end, I have to concede the point to my wife.  Bruce sounds old on Working For A Dream, and with good reason.  This is, for the most part, back-porch-rocking-chair music, fundamentally nostalgic and, compared to the rest of the man’s catalog, often startlingly inconsequential.  There are a few special moments buried in these grooves, but not nearly enough.

Rating: C

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