What to say about Bruce Springsteen’s latest product? For starters, I never thought I’d be using the words “Bruce Springsteen” and “product” in the same sentence. But the clichéd title of Springsteen’s new album - Working on a Dream - should have clued me in to the generic framework. Perhaps only Born to Run in the U.S.A. would have been more pandering.
God only knows what led to this New Jersey Transit train wreck. Magic, Bruce’s last album, was as fine a late-period arena shaker as could have been expected. But this time Bruce forgot the tunes, the hooks, and the lyrics, and he mistakes the usual first-rate songs about common men and women for common songs about Bruce.
The album roughly divides into two categories. There are the limp approximations of the E Street swagger - the title track, “My Lucky Day,” “Surprise Surprise.” And there are the sonic experiments, Bruce pushing in new directions, none of them successful. Album opener “Outlaw Pete” is Springsteen’s take on a spaghetti western outsider badass, a sort of Woody Guthrie meets Ennio Morricone mashup that could easily lead to Clint Eastwood’s death by self-inflicted gunshot. “Queen of the Supermarket” is this album’s wall-of-sound anthem, the kind of homage to Phil Spector that succeeded so well on Magic’s “Girls In Their Summer Clothes.” But this time Springsteen finds his dreamgirl at that checkout register at Wal-Mart, a scenario so implausible as to invite the question of whether Bruce has ever gone shopping in his life. Producer Brendan O’Brien slathers on the reverb and stacks the overdubbed vocals as high as they will go, but the bombast can’t rescue the ludicrous premise.
The songwriting is mostly abysmal. Usually a sure and compassionate writer, Springsteen actually resorts to puppy and kitty poster sentiments on “Surprise, Surprise”:
And 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.
All right, who are you, and who replaced Bruce Springsteen with Rainbow Brite?
The songs pick up at the end, with a sincere and affecting tribute to fallen E Streeter Danny Federici on “The Last Carnival” and the subdued, mostly acoustic character study “The Wrestler.” But it’s too little, and it’s way too late. This is Springsteen going through the motions, writing by the numbers, and missing wildly on the few chances he takes. It’s his worst album by far, a surprisingly inept blemish on what has been a consistently great career.