Bruce Springsteen: “Working on a Dream”
For the last decade or so, Bruce Springsteen’s music has been inextricably tied to his politics, each new album feeling a bit like The Boss’ own State of the Union, a relfection of what’s happening in the country he loves, filtered through his own leftist populism. 2002’s reunion with the E-Street Band, The Rising, is, for many, the defininitive 9/11 album, a record that Bruce wrote and released quickly after the attacks on U.S. soil that lamented what we’d lost, celebrated what we had left, and– perhaps most importantly– cast a distrustful, cautious eye toward the foreign policy decisions that were, at the time, just being hinted at by the Bush administration. Then came Devils and Dust, a quiet, prayerful lament for a country that seemed to be slipping away before Bruce’s very eyes; not so coincidentally, it was released shortly after Bush defeated John Kerry, for whom Springsteen had campaigned tirelessly. Even We Shall Overcome, his collection of old folk songs popularized by Pete Seeger, couldn’t help but feel timely, with its ancient laments about the plight of the working man and the horrors of war resonating as much as ever. And Magic, released in 2007, was Bruce’s Bush album, a dark, cynical set that was as full of true sorrow as it was rageful fury.
Working on a Dream, then, is Bruce’s Obama album– well, something like that, anyway. Released just a week after the new president took office, and following on the heels of several Obama fundraisers and rallies performed at by Springsteen, Dream, as its sentimental title suggests, is an outright romantic, idealistic album– the most at-peace Springsteen has ever sounded. It is, one assumes, a reflection of the hopes and yes, dreams, that Bruce has riding on the new administration. Sadly, none of Obama’s charisma seems to have rubbed off on Springsteen over the last few months, and, while The Boss may be working on a dream, he has apparently not been working on any decent new songs. Obama’s inauguration may have been Bruce’s political dream come true, but, as far as his music is concerned, it’s an absolute nightmare, resulting in the limpest, least inspired album of Springsteen’s long and, until now, remarkably consistent career.
His partnership with producer Brenden O’Brien continues, as self-destructive as ever before. O’Brien brings a slick, glossy touch to everything he touches, which stands at odds with the classic rock and roll fervor of the E-Street Band, and it seems that O’Brien’s parasitic presence sucks more life out of Springsteen with each passing album. The Rising was a great album in spite of O’Brien’s tendencies to overproduce; Devils and Dust was a pretty good album ocassionally marred by them; and Magic was a decent album that had most of its potential shot to hell by them. But Working on a Dream is outright terrible, everything encased in a sort of psychadelic, soft-rock sheen that results in the world’s first easy-listening Bruce album.
Fortunately for O’Brien, though, he is not guilty of ruining a great Springsteen album this time around; it would be a lousy record even without him, as Bruce has traded all the complexities of his political and personal rage, sorrow, and indignation for an album of platitudes, Hallmark cheese that he tries to pass off as the hopefulness of a new age. But there’s nothing hopeful about it, because there’s nothing even remotely alive or human about it; this is imply Bruce going through the motions, phoning in lame love-song treacle (“you were life itself, rushing over me”; “In a way, it will be alright”), finding his dream girl working the cash register at the grocery store (“Queen of the Supermarket”), an constructing an embarrassing everyman mythology (“Outlaw Pete”) that strains for the better part of eight minutes without ever being even remotely as interesting as “Thunder Road.” (Or just about any other Springsteen song, for that matter.) There are no hooks and there is no energy to speak of; the whole thing is just one spectacularly dreadful bore.
The best thing that can be said about it is that it makes Magic sound much better in retrospect. That album may have been Bruce by the numbers, but at least it was halfway decent Bruce by the numbers, with a few songs having solid hooks, and most of them having good lyrics. But here, Springsteen experiments. The results: Inexplicable choices like an African choir, a bizarre dip into 1950s sock-hop pop, and– admittedly– one pretty good, bluesy rock number, “Good Eye.”Bruce’s song from The Wrestler, which won him a Golden Globe, is also included, but those two songs are the two exceptions to an otherwise heartbreaking introduction to a kinder, gentler, and infinitely lamer Bruce– a Bruce who will soon be performing at the Super Bowl, and who has a new, ten-song greatest hits album that’s available exclusively at Wal Mart. In other words, these new developments aren’t the typical Springsteen fan’s dream, and, even if we share the man’s excitement over the new Commander in Chief, this album makes one worry that, for Boss fans, it’s going to be a long four years.