Springsteen hits and misses on his latest, Working on a Dream
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK editor
Bruce Springsteen records are an event. How could they not be? By all accounts, Springsteen is one of the singular voices of his generation, and he’s arguably on the Mount Rushmore of North American singer-songwriters with Bob Dylan and Neil Young (I’ll let you, dear reader, decide on the fourth).
His most recent work has done nothing to sully his reputation. Kicking off the decade in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Rising was a triumphant album that re-established Springsteen in the mainstream. From that point, Springsteen has rarely missed, releasing albums that showcased the best of his abilities, filtered through his own maturity and sensibilities. Whether it’s with the E-Street Band or solo, he has been able to expertly navigate all of his styles, choosing the right songs for the right album.
Unfortunately, there are more than a few songs on his latest, Working on a Dream, that seem as though they should be classic Bruce tracks, but in the end leave the listener wanting much more.
The record kicks off with the epic murder tale, “Outlaw Pete,” which is adorned with the full E-Street Band treatment, full of big guitars, sax solos and grand arrangements. It’s the classic E-Street sound, to be sure, one that turned albums like Born to Run and the Rising into instant classics. But there’s something forced about it. It appears a bit too glossy, too picture perfect. The main character, a troubled guy with legendary legal run-ins, is also classically Springsteen, but the entire package is just lacking something. And, as the record rolls on, it becomes obvious that this isn’t the only song that suffers under the weight of the production.
The overall sound is too much for the songs here. The sound isn’t all that different from this album's predecessor, Magic, but the songs on that record were grand and sweeping. There, the production measured up to the fevered pitch of Bruce’s songs. Here, the sound is so shiny as to distract from the themes of the album. It’s produced to sound optimistic, reflected in its title (and horrendous cover), but that all conspires to make it feel forced.
To compare anything Springsteen does to his early classics — Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, etc. — does no one any favors. But, comparing this record to what he’s produced in the 21st century is completely in bounds, and that’s where the flaws of this record are most apparent. This is another attempt to give the E-Street Band a chance to rock and give the songs context, but the songs themselves don’t call for them. On the Rising, for example, the songs were urgent and immediate, and the specter of all things E-Street worked to give the songs that apocalyptic feel that’s marked Bruce’s best work. He had a message, he needed to get it out quickly, and he needed the entire world to stand and take notice. On the Rising and, to a lesser extent, Magic, this works like a charm.
But on his other records, the songs were introspective, their message one of personal journey. The Seeger Sessions worked to capture the spirit of 1960s protest songs, while 2005’s Devils & Dust saw Springsteen again alone with his guitar, quietly meditating on his art. Those songs were powerful and would’ve been smothered under the sheer heft of the E-Street Band, and I’m afraid that’s what’s happened to a lot of the songs on this album.
That’s not to say the E-Street Band doesn’t occasionally shine, however. On “My Lucky Day,” the music matches the message. This is a bright, optimistic tune that measures with the best of latter-day Springsteen, while on “Life Itself,” the band dials down the intensity, letting Bruce’s lower register do most of the work.
But the best moments on this record illustrate the “less is more” mantra to a T. “The Last Carnival” features primarily Springsteen’s weathered voice and acoustic guitars and provides a beautiful natural ending to the album. The bonus track “the Wrestler” follows, Springsteen’s award-winning theme to Darren Aronofsky’s film. In the tradition of “Streets of Philadelphia,” the song captures the loneliness of the film’s protagonist. It’s achingly beautiful, capturing the tortured spirit of a trapped showman. These two songs illustrate how powerful the Boss can still be, and how his new music remains as essential as anything in his back catalogue. These songs, however, also shine a spotlight on the weaker points of Working on a Dream.
There’s no denying that the E-Street Band is more than able to electrify crowds night after night on the road, but it’s not heresy to ask if this album would be better served by their absence. This set could’ve been another excellent chapter in the Springsteen story, but instead, it will likely be remembered as being just a few steps ahead of the Human Touch/Lucky Town era of the early 1990s. The gems make this an album worth owning, but they aren’t enough to make the whole measure up to his extremely high standards.