A few months ago, amid a nation of tension and anticipation, Bruce Springsteen revealed himself as the October surprise by performing several shows in support of Illinois senator Barack Obama. Barack, you lucky son of a gun. It’s hard to find a performer with a wider audience or a more aggressively American sentiment. Springsteen has traditionally won the hearts and ears of working class America by singing fairly pointedly straight toward them. This isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination; that kind of transparent honesty was the only thing that made “Born in the USA” an American classic instead of a patronizing, overblown flop. Longtime fans of Springsteen will be gratified to know that he’s still singing to the little guy, and also that he’s still taking it very seriously. The same folks may be a little less pleased to hear that in his latest offering, The Boss has traded the hard-edged, bitter rock of “Born in the USA” for an album dominated by giddy, romantic pop-rock.
Working on a Dream is Springsteen’s sixteenth offering, and let’s be honest, the status he and the E Street Band enjoy means they could release an album filled with static and make a mint anyway. I’m not accusing the Boss of resting on his laurels, but it does perhaps provide an explanation for the sloppy production apparent continually throughout the album. There are some significant issues with volume levels on several tracks, resulting in muddled choruses and walls-of-sound where symphonies should be. On an album like this, shoddy production is a minor annoyance at most, but it’s a shame it had to be this way; there’s not really any excuse for it this late in the game.
As for the content, literally half the songs on the album are about being in love, and this is an extremely generous estimate. Perhaps I’m being affected by my state of mind as a nineteen year old college-aged male, but I found these songs the least enjoyable on the album. The puppy-like exuberance Springsteen displays in songs such as “Kingdom of Days”, in which the Boss keens “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I do,” is almost embarrassing in its earnesty, and he displays even more excitement over a clerk in a grocery store in “Queen of the Supermarket”.
The rest of the album contains a few blues-folk offerings, a traditional ballad, and a track written for “The Wrestler,” as well as what I can only assume is Bruce’s version of “The Birthday Song”. The writing on the album is more of what we’ve come to expect from Springsteen, capable, with vivid imagery and an honest quality that is difficult to reproduce, but seriously lacking in subtlety at times, and plagued by the occasional misstep, non sequitur, or straight up silly lyric.
The birthday tune mentioned previously is called “Surprise, Surprise”, and it contains the word “surprise” fifty times, as well as insightful inspirational lyrics such as “when the sun comes out tomorrow/ It'll be the start of a brand new day/ And all that you have wished for I know will come your way”. The chorus manages, in this way, to be simultaneously catchy and obnoxious in the extreme.
I’ve been pretty harsh thus far, but that doesn’t mean that “Working On A Dream” is devoid of value entirely. It’s not all spurious string sections and schmaltz. “Good Eye”, in my opinion the best track on the album, a stands rather alone in that it is a harsh, grungy delta blues-inspired rock song in an album filled with power-pop and arena ballads. “Good Eye” is short, with traditional blues lyrics, and an unstoppable confidence. Production issues here blur the lyrics into the guitar, but really, that’s not such a bad thing.
“Outlaw Pete”, the album’s opening track, is an eight minute ballad about an Appalachian-born bank robber-ne’er do well-folk hero. The track suffers from over-instrumentation, the full-orchestral compliment crowding the sound and obscuring what could have been, frankly, a haunting song, but ends up being simply a fun one.
On the other side of the fun spectrum lies “The Last Carnival”, a gospel-influenced tribute to the late Danny Federici. Springsteen beautifully incorporates a calliope while resisting the temptation to throw an organ-grinder melody into the mix.
Finally, the last track on the album, “The Wrestler”, composed for the film of the same name, is a soft, stirring understated tune, certainly the only case in which the word “understated” can be applied to the album at all. The song is the song of a man struggling with glory lost, coming to an acceptance of the fact that his best days are behind him. “Have you ever seen a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and wheat? If you've ever seen that scarecrow then you've seen me.”
Working on A Dream isn’t Springsteen’s best album by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re a fan of the boss, it’s certainly worth a listen. You won’t find anything sublime here, and you won’t find painstakingly crafted musical odysseys filled with carefully crafted soundscapes—but if that’s what you’re looking for, you probably aren’t that into arena rock anyhow.
Bruce Springsteen - The Wrestler