Bruce Springsteen is one prolific motherfucker. After all, he's produced one entire 4 CD box set (Tracks) of songs that he thought weren't good enough to be included on a regular album, and much of it still blew away anything in comparison. In that vein, we have Working on a Dream, coming little more than a year after his last effort - a record in Bruceland - written and recorded almost entirely during breaks and hiatuses from last year's Magic tour.
Obviously, the Boss had something to say, and wanted to say it fast. So good on him, ye Bard of the Boardwalk! However, even everything from an A-list artist won't rate an A. And thus, the dichotomy of Working on a Dream, which divides pretty much evenly among the good and the bad, with a touch of the ugly (the oversize packaging of the "deluxe" release won't fit on most CD shelves).
Working on a Dream is the weakest point in the triangle of the Boss' fine Brendan O'Brien-produced post-millennial releases (The Rising, Magic). Granted, the knob-twirler has utterly infused new life into the artist, goosing him to work above the badlands of the '90s. Still, even as a permanent resident of the backstreets, I must be honest. About half of the songs here are as bland musically and lyrically as their titles suggest: "What Love Can Do," "This Life," "Life Itself," "Kingdom of Days," and the title track, which many of erroneously try to attribute to some sort of post-Obama kum-ba-ya enthusiasm.
Perhaps not coincidentally, many of them are sung by Bruce in his newfound "crooning" voice that, when it works, it works amazingly (see Magic's "Girls in Their Summer Clothes"). They simply don't excite any enthusiasm or leave the listener with much of an impact, though Springsteen is still capable of turning a powerful and visceral phrase or two in them ("A bang, then stardust in your eyes/ A billion years or just this night," from "This Life").
Two character pieces with great potential also don't deliver. Opening Wild West saga "Outlaw Pete," clocking in at just over eight minutes, doesn't achieve what Marty Robbins' "El Paso" did in half the time. And the pie-eyed shopper in love with the "Queen of the Supermarket" can't raise his romantic aspirations much above "As the evening sky turns blue/ A dream awaits in aisle number two." But the good stuff? Aw, man - now we're talking!
The raucous rocker "My Lucky Day" - imbued by the good Prof. Roy Bittan's piano - will be the record's most lasting track. Kudos also to Bruce's channeling of R.L. Burnside's dirty, techno-looping Fat Possum blues on "Good Eye" (though his vocal is buried too much in the mix). And "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a nice turn on a country road, all acoustic pickin' and brushy drums.
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The real payoff comes in the last three tracks, all Bruce gold. The heavenly choral harmonies of the Beach Boys and Phil Spector loom over "Surprise Surprise," a buoyant anthem of celebration (i.e. The Rising's "Mary's Place") that defies you not to crack a smile. "The Last Carnival" is one of the most touching songs in the Boss' entire canon, an elegiac and tear-jerking tribute to recently deceased E Street organist Danny Federici that also neatly brings "Wild Billy's Circus Story" (from The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle) into the present.
And the shaggy dog described in "The Wrestler" - even without the mental image of a blonde, long-maned Mickey Rourke stumbling out of the ring - evokes sympathy and pathos. He's the latest in a line of Springsteen's life-battered "losers" from "Meeting Across the River" and "Johnny 99" to "Glory Days" and "Reno."
Working on a Dream has received a number of hagiographic critical hosannas, including a five-star review in Rolling Stone (then again, the magazine also gave Mick Jagger's last solo outing the same rating). They're just not deserved. Springsteen - like Bob Dylan and Neil Young - remains incredibly vital and contemporary at an age when most artists lean solely on past glories instead of pushing themselves. But in the end this Dream, while certainly pleasant, just isn't a wet one.