Monday, February 16, 2009

‘Working on a Dream,’ Bruce Springsteen

To say “Working on a Dream” is one of the worst albums of Bruce Springsteen’s career is both accurate and misleading—and, to a point, unfair. Yes, it certainly falls way short of his career peaks; it doesn’t even match the high points of the resurgence he’s experienced this decade. But, at the same time, it’s not like the thing is utterly unlistenable; it’s merely mediocre, but by Boss standards, that’s considered a failure.

Overall, it’s a quite uneven record that sounds more like a Springsteen solo effort than his previous E Street albums of the aughts, “The Rising” and “Magic.” Perhaps that’s because he wrote this one with just a core group of the band and brought the others in to fill in the gaps; perhaps that’s because it was recorded more quickly than the other records and thus wasn’t given the time to evolve in the studio. Whatever the case, “Working on a Dream” is a bit all over the place. Here’s how I break it down:

The Great
LinkThere are two tracks on “Working on a Dream” that hold their own against anything Springsteen’s ever done; they come back-to-back to close the record, and are similar in sound (quiet, mellow) and tone (remorseful, resigned, yet deeply personal).

“The Last Carnival” is Springsteen’s heart-rending tribute to his dear friend Danny Federici, the E Street keyboardist who died last year. It calls back 35 years to “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” off Springsteen’s second album, which detailed the wild ride of being on the road with the band. In “The Last Carnival” Springsteen acknowledges the show must go on as they ride “the train that keeps on movin,’” but it’s not without pain: “The light that was in your eyes/Has gone away … The thing in you that made me ache/Has gone to stay.” It’s gripping stuff, played with just slight instrumentation and a wide, airy vocal from Springsteen that makes him sound like he’s in a church; that image is reinforced at the end when the entire E Street chorus comes in to sing a type of a capella hallelujah sendoff to their fallen comrade. I don’t know what it says about Springsteen, though, that he’s gotten to a point in his life and career where his most inspired lyrical efforts are only spurred by the deaths of dear friends (one of the best songs off “Magic” was another similar tribute, “Terry’s Song”).

The other truly great song on “Working on a Dream” may not even count toward the album’s credits, as it’s “The Wrestler,” a “bonus track.” Like “The Last Carnival,” this is another melancholy, mostly acoustic, intimate affair that shoots straight for the heart. There’s much to appreciate here, such as his downtrodden vocal performance, the just-right touches of piano and percussion. But what I love the most is how Springsteen took the movie and highlighted its universal theme; Mickey Rourke is so great in “The Wrestler,” it can be easy to focus so closely on him you miss the film’s broader appeal. Here, Springsteen takes a movie about a beaten down professional wrestler and turns it inside out; he doesn’t mention wrestling at all, but shows how the movie could’ve been about any man whose “only faith is in the broken bones and bruises I display.”

The Good
These songs wouldn’t make a best-of compilation, but that doesn’t mean they’re not catchy. “My Lucky Day” is a well-meaning, wide-open rock and roll romp that seems like what “Better Days” would’ve sounded like recorded with the full E Street Band; lyrically it’s a bit soft, but it sounds darn good in the car with the windows down.

“Good Eye” is the first original Springsteen song featuring the bullet mic he’s been toying with during the past few tours. I’d have to go back and check deeper to be sure, but this seems to me maybe the most outright blues/rock number Springsteen’s ever written for the full band. Again, this song is memorable more for style than substance; it sounds great, but the lyrics are … uninspiring, even for a blues song. I absolutely love the bullet mic, so it would have been nice for “Good Eye” to get more attention to detail in the studio. As it is, it feels like a really, really good half of a song.

I also like “Life Itself” quite a bit for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. More than anything, it just sounds different from the rest of the record, with Springsteen’s vocal put through a darker, almost warbling filter. It's like E Street on a cloudy day, and that makes it stand out from producer Brendan O’Brien’s more typical bright style.

The Mediocre
There’s far too many songs in this category to make “Working on a Dream” anything but a, well, mediocre record. The title track itself is total cheese—the only difference between it and utter crap being that total cheese from Springsteen is still imbued with enough heart and passion to make it tolerable.

“What Love Can Do” is pedestrian rehashing of well-traveled territory—in less than three minutes he manages to use the words “train,” “rain,” “rust,” “dust,” and the phrase “eye for an eye” (last heard in “Empty Sky”). Once again, though, the song is raised a level by the E Streeters.

There are more like this, that don’t really require further examination: “Kingdom of Days” (does he know this phrase is way too similar to the contemporary Christian song “Ancient of Days’?), “Surprise Surprise,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” just sort of wander on by—you won’t skip them, necessarily, but you won’t seek them out, either.

The Bad
The Terrible Trio: “Outlaw Pete,” “Queen of the Supermarket,” and “This Life.” Let’s take them in order of reverse wretchedness.

“This Life” sounds in every conceivable way like “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” with different lyrics. The latter was a head-turner from “Magic,” a true original in surf pop that Springsteen hadn’t really explored before. “This Life” is its bastard retread cousin. Why it’s here, I have no idea. This has to be a joke, right? Because “This Life” could be an early demo for “Girls." The two tracks are embarrassingly similar.

Few artists can do epic like Springsteen can do epic. There’s a reason “The River” is now in the Norton anthology for modern American poetry; the “Born to Run” album is one big epic journey in and of itself. That’s what makes “Outlaw Pete” such a travesty: it’s so painfully forced, it comes off feeling like somebody trying—unsuccessfully—to ape Springsteen’s epic-ness. The song just tries way, way too hard and ends up feeling contrived. It took me two sessions to get through this eight-minute monster the first time, and I have never had a desire to listen through it again. Anyone who compares this to “Jungleland” needs their head examined.

But, at least I did get through it once. I have yet to accomplish such a feat with “Queen of the Supermarket,” which could just be the worst song Springsteen’s ever written. From the whiny vocal delivery to the utterly horrible and idiotic lyrics about salvation in the form of a supermarket cashier, this is, again, stretching for epic-ness at its worst. Springsteen can make the mundane magical, but this is not it. I can’t get through this song. Seriously, I've tried and failed. It’s horrible.

So … where does that leave “Working on a Dream”? I understand where it’s coming from—I could see how Federici’s death has spurred Springsteen to make the most of the time he has left with his friends and bandmates, but he could accomplish that by just touring relentlessly with the same reckless abandon that marked the last segment of the "Magic" shows last year, where they were taking requests and playing who-knows-what's-next every night. That was inspired stuff, and it's certainly more than good enough to remain relevant, as the Super Bowl performance demonstrated.

I respect the notion of just wanting to write something and put it out there, come hell or high water. But Springsteen’s at the point in his career where it takes a Herculean effort to produce new work that can stand up to the myth and legacy of the old stuff; on “Working on a Dream,” he was able to muster that effort a couple times, and, at almost 60 years old, that’s really not too shabby.

I can enjoy this album for what it is, picking out the moments I especially like. But that doesn’t mean I want to hear the whole thing in concert.

Grade: C+

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