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Album review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's 'Working on a Dream'

01:00 PM PT, Jan 24 2009

Bruce_3 Bruce Springsteen is the quintessential album-era rock star. Hear me out, ye who would argue Beatles-Dylan-Marvin-Brian Wilson-Who-Pink Floyd-Stones: Those artists might have made superior individual efforts, but none has used the long-player form itself more powerfully over the arc of a long career, not only to establish a world through song, but to inhabit an enduring persona.

A string of hit singles alone wouldn't have made Springsteen the bard of America's slide from industrial-era swagger into service economy anomie. He needed the track-by-track architecture of albums to flesh out characters, relate each to the other, extend metaphors to express what they could say and build a palpable, detail-strewn landscape through which they could travel.

The album format also has allowed Springsteen to build a sound, both with his stalwart E Street Band (a metaphor itself for the family connections and community spirit his songs celebrate or lament) or in more minimalist projects. Three is the magic number throughout this Catholic boy's huge <i>oeuvre </i>-- classic rock romanticism meets big band congeniality meets troubadour folk lyricism and is transfigured.

On his greatest albums, Springsteen rode the energies of these different styles through peaks and valleys, aurally encapsulating late 20th century Americana with a rain shower of guitars and a howlin' whoop.

Springsteen is a creature of the literary impulse in rock, the idea that a set of songs made bigger by amplification and sonic trickery could tell a story as rich as anything William Faulkner or Ralph Ellison managed. Top 40 singles might be poetry in the candy store, but the album made novelistic rock possible, and that's where Springsteen found his place and ruled it.

It's helped that his subject matter is the same as many Great American Novelists, such as Steinbeck and  Cormac McCarthy, and that the semi-articulate voices of his characters needed the extra push of a killer riff or a huge drumroll to say their piece. The thrill of an album like "Born to Run" comes from following Springsteen's Everymen through hopeful moments and horrifying ones across eight tracks that might not be overtly related, but form a story line nonetheless.

But whatever diehards might say, the album era is over. "Working on a Dream," Springsteen's 16th studio album, is not merely a response to this fact. It's partial proof.

That the master of the album would turn so determinedly away from the sustained mood and varied emotion that form demands suggests that there's little hope for anyone still trumpeting its virtues, at least within the pop-rock mainstream. More a pile of exuberant initial forays than a fully realized statement, "Working on a Dream" rejects the finer points of literary-minded album rock and aims for the instant effect of a string of hits.

It's a charmingly quixotic move; barely anyone has hits in these dark days of the music industry's decline, and especially rockers over the age of . . . how old are the Jonas Brothers? So give Springsteen credit for even trying. But the enthusiasm he and his team bring to these tracks doesn't redeem them. The best thing that can be said about "Working on a Dream" is that it's boisterously scatterbrained, exhilaratingly bad.

Only a great artist could make an album that's at once so stirring and so slight. This is the Boss, after all; he can wring meaning out of a dish towel. And he's obviously enjoying himself, recalling the radio hits of his youth and applying their glitter to his template. But he gets lost in the idea of pop, forgetting to come back to Earth and attend to the little details that pump blood into his best work.

There's a lot of variation on "Dream," as befits a foray into the singles game. "Outlaw Pete" is Southern rock done up with symphonic pomp. Partridge Family-style bubble gum inspires "Surprise Surprise," and Moby-ish electronics flavor the rough blues of "Good Eye." There's much nostalgia too -- "Tomorrow Never Knows" nods to both Dylan and the Beatles, while "The Last Carnival," dedicated to the late E Street Band keyboard player Danny Federici, floats forth on some acoustic finger-picking redolent of 1960s-era Laurel Canyon.

If there's a model for this music, it's "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," the best song on "Magic," Springsteen's previous album. That shimmering, melancholy dollop of California beach rock perfectly balanced corn and careful detail. Brendan O'Brien's organizing hand contained the floridity of the E Street Band, and Springsteen, trading in his troubadour's drawl for a crooner's open throat, found the plain-spoken truth in pop's sentimentality. It sounded just like the sun going down.

Several songs on "Dream" aim for the same exquisite mood as that one, and occasionally -- on the married-couple love songs "This Life" and "Kingdom of Days" -- Springsteen and crew come close. But they're just as likely to overdo it.

"Queen of the Supermarket," the album's low point, illustrates the consequences of over-flavoring a song, an understandable error for an album artist trying to concentrate his gifts. Roy Bittan's meditative piano opens the track, which has Springsteen moving among the aisles stealing glimpses of his grocery-bagging Beatrice. Had it stayed that spare and mellow, the song might have produced chills. Instead, disco strings, mounting backing vocals and pounding drums turn it into a Broadway number. And the lyrics just don't earn the high kicks.

It's "The Wrestler," the bonus track that won a Golden Globe for its appearance in the Darren Aronofsky film of the same name, that most clearly realizes Springsteen's undying gift. Tacked on to this shiny package like a worn leather bracelet its owner just can't throw out, the song is ancient-school Springsteen: a terse ballad about a beautiful loser, simply arranged around acoustic guitar and modulated keyboards, that gently builds into a secular hymn.

It's the kind of song that says more than its words convey because the listener knows it's part of something bigger. Somewhere -- in this case, in a film, but also in the other songs Springsteen has written that give a different bruised face and gritty voice to the same man -- the song's story continues. That's how folk ballads work.

Springsteen might be bored of being their champion, but nobody serves them better, even still, than him.

--Ann Powers

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
"Working on a Dream"
Columbia
2.5 stars

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and now BRUCE will work on a Deluxe edition of 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town...

http://www.musicnewsnet.com/2009/01/another-bruce-springsteen-deluxe-edition-in-the-works-darkness-this-time.html

Ann,

That's a well-written review but I have to disagree. I think "Working on a Dream" is a wonderful album, and it's probably a more cohesive thematic album than is apparent on the surface. I'd have no problem rating it 5 stars as I can't stop listening to this album. The melodies are infectiously gorgeous and the production is lush. It's not the same old same old from Springsteen. Much of this is new ground for him. It rewards repeated listens and it probably requires music listeners conditioned by Springsteen's past albums to step outside the box a bit. It pays homage to some of the pop stylings of the 1960s and early 1970s. And a couple of these songs could have been made standards by circa late 1960s Frank Sinatra.

Cheers! A wonderful overview of Springsteen's mission these past 30 years. Yes, Cormac McCarthy; yes, William Faulkner.

As for "Dream"? Alas, let's give the man his due for wanting to play with sound, regain his youth. Do it, and do it again. But how could he have forgotten how to write? Horrible lyrics on this album. Some good, old fashioned, pop-n-roll fun, to be sure, on several songs, but really, the overall result, because of the lyrics, is as bad as Cormac McCarthy would be were he to write Love Story 2. Die again, Ali, die! And hurry up, you're killing us!

Bruce will be back. In the meantime, it's so nice to read a reviewer who both understands the bigger picture, and isn't afraid to keep those stars for a more worthy album. Maybe Rolling Stone and their 5-star reviewer can learn something from you.

Cheers to you Anne Powers.

Springsteen has a lot of fans (including among critics-- former Times critic Robert HIlburn is one of them) who will say that ANYTHING he puts out is great. But the reality is that if you think about it, since "Born in the USA" almost nothing he has done has had any lasting cultural impact, even though some of it (such as "American Skin" and "The Rising") has been ambitious.

He's washed up, and has been washed up for a long time. When he releases a new album, the songs get radio airplay for a little while, and then fade away, and radio stations go back to playing "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run" because those songs stand the test of time and his more recent material does not. The other major dino-rock act that is about to release a new album, U2, at least had a hit in the last decade that gets played at big events (such as presidential campaign stops)-- "Beautiful Day". Has any Springsteen song released in the last 20 years been repeatedly played at big public events the way "Beautiful Day" is?

It's over. It speaks well of Springsteen's artistic integrity that he continues to compose and release new music. But his music no longer matters to anyone but his devout fans.

Nicely done.

Bruce is not washed up, but this is not a 'wonderful album'. Let's not kid ourselves.

Has any Springsteen song released in the last 20 years been repeatedly played at big public events the way "Beautiful Day" is?

Yes. "The Rising".

And since when is radio airplay a barometer of anything in 2008?

Caryn:

Springsteen fans may play "The Rising" on their iPods, but no, you don't hear it at sports events, political rallies, or anywhere else like you do "Beautiful Day".

Radio airplay and play at public events are measures of a song's cultural impact. Springsteen's output in the 1970's and 1980's included several songs that had that type of impact. His more recent work has not had that type of impact. That's what makes it clear that the man is a has-been.

"Working on a dream" is a great album from a great group - Bruce & The E Street Band. You can call them "The soundtrack of the 2000´s", since "Magic" and this latest album will remain as the best ones for a long time. Thanks, Bruce!

For an alternative review on this album, check out the review in the OCRegister. That reviewer gets the album in spades.

I believe this to be one of Springsteen's loosest albums, where he plays with melodies and lyrics.

He is not going to achieve Born to Run status on any album, because the comparisons and the times are too steep for it.

I could say that all the negative press is coming from people expecting a Born In The USA or Born To Run caliber albums, the man is almost 60 yet ambitious to write good music, he is not a mesiah, he is an artist, let's stop reflecting back on time and enjoy the fact that he still has vitality and conviction to create art.

Powers continues to prove she's the anti-thesis of Hilburn's generally populist writings. She's out of touch with the general, everyday person and worse, an interlectual snot. Just one of the reason I no longer subscribe or even buy the Times as an actual newspaper; no wonder it's going down the tubes. Getting back to this album. It's not great. But it's good. And if it the work of an unknown, it would be raved about. Oh yeah, Powers thinks, say, a Beyonce is more important than Springsteen, clearly a sign of elemental twitdom.

For the person who made the point about hearing Bruce's stuff at big rallies....you do realize that Obama ended almost every rally down the stretch with "The Rising" playing don't you? In fact, the night of the election after he made his speech he walked off stage to "The Rising". So your point is incorrect.

Actually, you can do an album that's musically all over the map. The album "Working On A Dream" reminds me most of in its scope and variety, though not at the same pinnacle of excellence, is The Beatles' White Album. You could make the same claim that there's no consistency there, that there are a dozen different styles, but the breadth of scope and variety itself can make an album expansive, surprising, and free. That's what happens here. Not every song is an equal success, but the arrangements are gorgeous and Springsteen's unabashed romanticism (including on the incredibly sweet, quintessential Springsteenian "Queen Of The Supermarket" (a high point, not a low one) makes this one of his finest albums ever. If there were a great rocker here to replace the pedestrian, "Tracks II" worthy "My Lucky Day," this album might have been an unabashed masterpiece.

it`s funny that you mention "overdoing it"...ann, your review sucks the life out of an album review. why over-analyze things? take it for what it is, a gorgeous, lush and breezy album, a nice change of pace, and some much needed optimism.
where`s robert hillburn when you need him? now he would have written a real review.

Bruce, you just don't move me anymore. Bruce had a great run, but face it, his lyrics don't surge, soar, and spit like the glory days anymore. He sounds like Melanie trying to do Dylan after reading Steinbeck.

I've been a Bruce fan for over thirty years, and this is Springsteen's best work---and I do not say that lightly. I heard it last night and was stunned that he can evolve as he has over the years and come up with something so lush, so youthful and yet so true to his roots. He's still telling great stories, and still creating music that is more relevant that anything else out there. To compare this album to Born to Run is useless, as some of the posters above have done. This is not 1975, and he has managed as an artist to grow and continues to put out music that is not only great, but gets better, within the context of its given time frame. This guy just keeps getting better and is proof that we can improve with age and not just fade away.

Bruce is having fun, now, guys. Let him be. He's playing, and he doesn't feel the need to prove anything. He puts it all out there. Maybe he doesn't spend years editing what he gives us anymore, but I'm glad for the bounty. When Tracks came out, it was basically discs of throwaways and we all waited for it like lions at the gate. Tracks isn't cohesive and it's not meant to be. It has songs that are fun, banal, energetic, similar--and I lapped it up.I want to hear everything that comes out of that genius mind of his, even if it alone isn't genius. Working On A Dream is kind of similar: it's not really a thematic collection (album, if you will) as it is a collection of things that crossed his mind. It has its gems, and it has its diamonds in the rough, and it has it's monkey gold too. And, still, I lap it up.

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