Review Summary: After 35 years of staving off cynicism and realism with hope, Bruce Springsteen has finally been validated. To celebrate, he released one of the weakest albums of his career.
2008 was a hell of a year for The Boss. First, he endured the terrible tragedy of losing founding E Street Band member “Phantom” Danny Federici, only to rally and continue his Magic
tour to some of the best reviews of his career. Then he contributed a song to the Mickey Rourke vehicle The Wrestler
, which earned him a Golden Globe and an outrageous Oscar snub. Oh yeah, and some guy named Barack invited him to perform all over the place to aid his campaign. Yes, after 8 years of full on political proselytizing that offered some of the best late-career albums an artist could hope for, Bruce Springsteen finally got his wish: a Democrat won the White House.
That fulfillment of the hope that’s driven Springsteen’s music since the start makes Working on a Dream
a watershed in the artist’s career. Springsteen’s albums have always been subtly conceptual, and all 12 of the songs on the album proper deal with the idea of dedication. Nothing new for the Boss, but now he has proof that hard work can
pay off if you stick to your guns. Bruce and the band celebrate by trying their hands at all sorts of new sounds, giving the album the variety of The River
and the hope and ambition of Born to Run
Sounds good, don’t it? Unfortunately, after beating his fists against the wall for 35 years, Bruce doesn’t seem to know what to do now that the stone finally crumbled. Things get off to a rocky start with the bloated “Outlaw Pete,” a four-minute track crammed into eight minutes. Pete’s story is somewhat interesting, and producer Brendan O’Brien injects all sorts of studio goodies as the band joins Bruce in increments, but the song never really grows
. But the band gets it together for the next number, the slightly forgettable but taut “My Lucky Day,” a straightforward “No Surrender”-esque rocker complete with a fist-pumping “Big Man!” sax break. The mid-tempo title track is also a highlight, with its concise message and its endlessly catchy chorus.
Then it all goes to hell. If “Queen of the Supermarket” is not the worst song Bruce Springsteen has ever written, then he has wisely kept the real nadir under wraps. An ode from a man to the grocery clerk who bagged his heart, it is one of the most embarrassing songs you will ever hear coming from an artist who damn well knows better. It’s drawn some comparisons to Adam Sandler’s Bruce parody “Lunchlady Land,” which isn’t quite apt: at least Sandler knew he was taking the piss.
The first half, including the repetitive “This Life” and the bluesy but slightly off “Good Eye” are mostly sound musically, but lyrically they completely fall apart. I don’t care how happy Springsteen or Obama makes you: when you hear the line “A dream awaits in aisle number two” some part of you will never feel hope again. Then we move into the second half, and the formula switches; suddenly songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Kingdom of Days” and “Life Itself” show some actual substance, only for O’Brien to get in the way or for the band to marry the lyrics to the wrong instrumentation. And was Springsteen trying to get laid off this album? “This Life,” “Life, Itself” and the god-awful “Surprise, Surprise,” 2/3 of which consists of saying the word “surprise,” suggest that he wrote some of these for his wife’s birthday.
The album does kick into high-gear with the Wild Billy-reviving send-off to deceased bandmate “Phantom Dan” Federici and the bonus track, “The Wrestler,” a sparse folk tune that brings up all sorts of clichés for down-and-outers and uses them to hammer home the cold horror of a has-been’s life. But if an album doesn’t finally sort itself out until its last song and a bonus cut, you know you’re in trouble.
The chief problem with the album is its scattershot nature. Yes, it does have a theme behind it, but Springsteen is one of rock’s great perfectionists; some of his best songs never made it on albums until he finally emptied the vaults with Tracks
back in ’98. But almost everything on this album sounds like something the Bruce of yore would have scrapped. Bruce, the man who left off gold to ensure the actual album
worked, finally caved and went for the hit singles.
It’s also the first major validation for all those smarmy critics who said that Bush gave comics and artists nothing but a gold mine. Just consider Springsteen’s output this decade: the somewhat bloated but moving an essential 9/11 response, The Rising
. The whispered fury of Devils & Dust
. The raucous and jaunty We Shall Overcome
, one of the freshest and best cover albums ever made. The musically upbeat but lyrically foreboding Magic
. All of them dealt with the initial uncertainty of the post-9/11 Bush administration and the anger that finally emerged from it. Compare those four – all of them among the Boss’ best – to this haphazard collection of ill-fitting singles, and the result is shocking. Without something to push against, has rock’s great humanist finally run out of inspiration?
Now, I’m not saying Bruce is going to wind up the musical Keith Olbermann, who has foregone actual newscasting in favor of continuing to harp on Bush months after he left office, but now that America’s future seems to point in a less apocalyptic direction, it’s the Boss who's facing uncertainty. Working on a Dream
is an enjoyable enough grab-bag of songs if you don’t let yourself pay attention to the lyrics too closely, but for the first time since his wayward material in the 90s, Bruce Springsteen has gone from the extraordinary to the levels of the merely average.