Disc Review: Bruce Springsteen, 'Working on a Dream'

It's got all the elements that have helped make Springsteen a rock icon - majestically ornate music, life-affirming lyrics and spirited delivery.

Springsteen album 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Springsteen album 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN Working on a Dream (NMC) Remember Stephen King's Pet Sematary? The animals there looked quite normal, but there was something off about them. That book came to mind while listening to Bruce Springsteen's Working on a Dream. It's got all the elements that have helped make Springsteen a rock icon - majestically ornate music performed by the incomparable E Street Band, uplifting, life-affirming lyrics and spirited delivery. However, it sounds like Springsteen's body and mind have been taken over by a humorless, wooden facsimile who knows how to make the right sounds, but forgot how to be human. Musically speaking, Working on A Dream continues where the Beach Boys-Spectorish sounds of Magic's "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" takes off. But what sounded effortless, exuberant and endearing only a couple years ago here sounds forced, stilted and stale. Songs like "Kingdom of Days," "This Life" and "Life Itself" (something sound familiar?) sound interchangeable in their Hallmark themes of appreciating life and flowery arrangements. And the title song, debuted at the Super Bowl, is as inoffensively bland as a Springsteen song could be. But it's not just pop Bruce which is troubling. The opening epic, "Outlaw Pete," is a sprawling parable, the kind that Springsteen has mined so effectively in the past. Here, though, it's strictly by-the-numbers and marred by a cloying melodic theme that bloggers have gone to town about for its similarities to Kiss's "I Was Made for Loving You." And perhaps the biggest misstep is "Queen of the Supermarket," which a different version of Springsteen could have nailed as a subtle commentary on alienation in neon America, but here is elevated into an overwrought mini-tragedy replete with strings and female choruses in which the narrator creepily borders on stalking a checkout counter clerk. Even a seemingly unassuming singer/songwriter country folk song like "Tomorrow Never Knows" is marred by a string arrangement that sounds like it was cloned from The Carpenters' "Top of the World." "Surprise" is destined to become Springsteen's "Shiny Happy People," a bubbly pop confection that's impossible not to sing along to, but containing some of the most banal lyrics the Boss has committed to record. On the album's last two songs - "The Last Carnival," a downbeat elegy for late keyboardist Danny Federici, and "The Wrestler," the Oscar-nominated title song to the film of the same name - Springsteen reverts to his solo career troubadour sound, which after all the candy-assed pop, sounds refreshing. But neither diversion is particularly spectacular in any way. Working on a Dream is a bad album only in terms of Springsteen's oeuvre itself. It's certainly not a bad album by any conventional means. What's most troubling about Working on a Dream is that no matter what side trips Springsteen has taken with his music in the past, there's always been that sense of adventure, discovery and honesty that has marked it as quality rock and roll. His instincts have always been right on target, and here, it seems like he's lost that gift. For the first time, it sounds like the Boss may be spinning his wheels directly toward the late show in Las Vegas.