Working On A Dream
REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/10/2009
The arrival of a Bruce Springsteen record once signified that a unique listening experience was at hand -- that the elements of what made rock and roll great would be on display in a veritable melting pot of genres and influences. The Boss was first amongst his peers; few could challenge him. Today, that spot has been abdicated, as we see a Springsteen struggling to reach those once tremendous heights. Today, we see a Springsteen who has become normal.
This course has been evident for the past decade. Only with The Rising, at a time when the country needed it, did Springsteen achieve some of his old grandeur. As it turns out, The Boss was up for the task. Yet with the advent of Devils & Dust, one got the sense that Springsteen was treading water, delivering a bleak acoustic driven album because he was supposed to.
We Shall Overcome was a much welcome respite and arguably was his finest album since Nebraska. But with the 2007 release with of Magic, it was clear Springsteen had intended the Seeger Sessions to be a one-off project, something to bide time while he returned to original recordings.
Magic’s purpose it seemed was to remind those who had forgotten what made The Boss who he was. While there were tracks that did indeed work on that level (“Radio Nowhere,” “Livin’ In The Future”), as a whole, the proceedings never gelled.
Working On A Dream has been touted as the first Springsteen album of the Obama administration, a statement so ridiculously useless I have no further need to mock it. The material presented here has seemingly been infused with positivity and good feelings, unusual in its totality for a Springsteen record. Where that inspiration came from is anyone’s guess, but suffice it to say that it fails to leave an impact.
The greatest talent Springsteen once had was his ability to create characters and weave stories around them. Working On A Dream is devoid of such interests. A renegade such as “Outlaw Pete” is nothing new for Springsteen; he has explored that idea and executed it much better in the past. “Queen Of The Supermarket” comes across as just flat-out embarrassing, with lines such as “With my shopping cart I move through the heart / Of a sea of fools so blissfully unaware.” The man who wrote “Nebraska” and “Backstreets” should not be reduced to writing such slop, let alone having to sing it.
For the second consecutive record, the fingerprints of producer Brendan O’Brien are clearly evident with regards to how the music sounds. Springsteen appears to have become infatuated with sonic touches that twenty years ago he rarely utilized. In fact, the album begins with such a demonstration, featuring The Boss singing over the sound of a string section. “This Life” admittedly impresses with its similarity to Pet Sounds, but that is not the point. These small flourishes have never been part of Springsteen’s repertoire. A track such as “Born To Run” had many different sorts of instruments being used, but picking them out was rather pointless due to the massive, holistic nature of the song. With We Shall Overcome, Springsteen attempts to expand his “range,” if you will, but does not possess the wherewithal to execute properly.
The most effective and touching moments of the record happen to come directly at the end with “The Last Carnival” and “The Wrestler.” Both are heartfelt, simple songs that had incredibly strong emotional cores. The former is Springsteen’s goodbye to E Street Band member Danny Federic who passed away early in 2008. The latter is the theme song to the critically acclaimed film The Wrestler. It is without a doubt one of Springsteen’s most affecting tunes, especially placed in the film’s context. These two gems show that The Boss is still capable of reaching an audience in a deep and long-lasting way. It is unfortunate that the frequency with which this occurs has lessened severely over the years.
As time passes, it becomes apparent that Springsteen really had nothing much to say with Working On A Dream. Perhaps if he had allowed more time between Magic and the current record things would be different, but instead Springsteen chose to deliver this album now. The end result sees Springsteen brought down to the level of his peers, delivering one of his least impressive works to date.