Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Working on a Dream, is most satisfying at its saddest and most disappointing at its most ambitious. It’s also the only Springsteen album in which the music outstrips the lyrics.
First the sad part. Working on a Dream ends in powerful emotional terms with two spare ballads. The first is “The Last Carnival,” a sweet, feeling requiem for E Street Band keyboardist Danny Federici, who died last spring of cancer. On that song, Springsteen evokes the Jersey Shore circus imagery of his earliest songs (“Sundown, sundown/They’re taking all the tents down/Where have you gone, my handsome Billy?”) to bid his bandmate farewell. “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” alas, has ended.
Then, billed as a “bonus track,” Springsteen’s riveting theme for the Mickey Rourke film The Wrestler closes Working on a devastating note in which hope and despair mingle together, somehow become inextricable and are finally impossible to tell apart. Over a plaintive piano-and-acoustic-guitar melody, the singer declares, “My only faith is in the broken bones and bruises I display,” and wonders, “Tell me, friend, can you ask for anything more?”
It’s a haunting question, but one the rest of the album answers with nothing like the complexity it deserves. Each of Springsteen’s three major albums in this century connects to a major historical event: The Rising grapples with the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks; Magic ponders the deceptions of the Bush administration and our country’s inexplicable willingness to fall for them; and now Working on a Dream taps the optimism of Obamamania. None of those albums ranks among his best—which is only to say they’re not masterpieces—though individual songs on each achieve exactly what Springsteen intended.
Mighty Boss Tunes
- "Radio Nowhere"
- Ostensibly a song about the vapidity of modern radio, this Grammy-winning single from 2007’s Magic is really about the isolating emptiness of modern media culture. “Is there anybody alive out there?” Springsteen asks. Good question.
- “American Skin (41 Shots)”
- From Live in New York City (2001), this smoldering look at tensions between cops and urban minorities incited police boycotts, but the lyrics—“We’re baptized in these waters/And in each other’s blood”—are more complex than a simple anti-cop screed.
- The acoustic version on 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad has a quiet power, but the furious full-band version on Live gives this mournful tale of destructive capitalism, traced in the history of a steel town, a transcendent angry howl.
- “The Rising”
- Listen again. A direct, gospel-inflected, totally American response to 9/11, the title song to Springsteen’s 2002 album is dated, but in exactly the right way: It takes you back to that primal wound, to the fear you felt and the hope you mustered.
- "Long Time Comin'"
- And not because Springsteen drops the F-bomb. The friskiest song from Devils & Dust (2005), it marries an enduring Boss theme—overcoming your family history—to an upbeat vision of fatherhood. Plus, he drops the F-bomb. –Scott Dickensheets
Working fails when Springsteen overreaches. The album’s opening track, the eight-minute “Outlaw Pete,” strains for epic Western folklore and, in its grand arrangement and bold strings, attains it. The lyrics (“He robbed a bank in his diapers and little bare baby feet”), sorry to say, are ridiculous. As for “Queen of the Supermarket,” it’s the sort of mock-operatic song that could stand as a parody of the Boss’ worst tendencies—“A dream awaits in aisle No. 2,” indeed. (Check out D.C. band The Bourbon Dynasty’s far more streamlined “Girl in the Checkout Line” for unlikely proof that the theme of grocery-store lust can be handled with humor and wit.)
Much of the rest of the album—the title track, “My Lucky Day,” the raw, bluesy “Good Eye”—hits its mark admirably. Springsteen and producer Brendan O’Brien draw on The Byrds, The Beach Boys and Phil Spector to summon moods of longing and gratitude. The transformative power of love and the inexorable passage of time emerge as two of Working’s central themes. As Springsteen, who will turn 60 this year, sings in “Kingdom of Days,” “We laugh beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays.”
The desire to outrace time turns out to be Working on a Dream’s strength and weakness. On the upside, Springsteen has lost none of his intensity or his desire to define the era in which he’s living. But it’s hard not to feel that this album was pulled together quickly out of a fear of missing the cultural moment. That can make the difference between a classic album and a perfectly fine one. Springsteen’s boldest work shaped the times as well as commented on them. That’s a crucial distinction, one that some of Springsteen’s old perfectionism might have been able to bridge.
Anthony DeCurtis is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and the author of In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work.