If there is a lesson to be learned from Bruce Springsteen’s 16th studio album, Working on a Dream, it is not that we’re living in a new world brimming with the hope instilled in all of us by our new president. It’s that, despite what you’ve been reading in record reviews for the past few years, no one — not the Arcade Fire, not the Hold Steady, and certainly not the Gaslight Anthem — sounds very much like Bruce Springsteen at all.
In fact, even Bruce Springsteen doesn’t always sound all that much like Bruce Springsteen anymore, a fact that wasn’t terribly problematic on a record like Seeger Sessions, when he purposefully went in a new direction. On the past few records, though, and especially on Working on a Dream, he’s been making what seems like a concerted effort to recapture the sounds and energy of his earlier work, and the results are mixed.
The record starts off with “Outlaw Pete,” an eight-minute epic about some sort of old-timey character straight out of a Western. At first, it seems heavy-handed and almost cringe worthy, more reminiscent of “Billy the Kid” than “Highway Patrolman,” with embarrassing, repeated cries of “I’m Outlaw Pete! I’m Outlaw Pete!” But somehow, it turns itself around, with an arrangement boasting swelling strings, fluid organs, group backing vocals and a handful of well placed tempo changes and dynamic shifts. It’s an absolute mess, but it’s beautiful. Then it’s on to “My Lucky Day,” which is exactly the kind of Bruce Springsteen song I’ve always wished people would try to rip off — it’s the album’s most successful attempt at old-school Springsteen, a song like “Sherry Darling” from The River that’s highly energetic and just so purely, unabashedly joyous it’d be a shame not to dance to it at least once. And Clarence rocks a sax solo, sadly his only one on the record. “What Love Can Do” is borderline power-pop, featuring a nice mixture of acoustic and electric guitars, tightly wound percussion, and a vocal melody that’s among the best on the record. “This Life” is a throwback to Spector-esque, reverb-heavy pop music — a sound from Springsteen’s youth that he’s always been better at than people have traditionally given him credit for.
So that’s the good news, which, depending on the extent to which you believe the Boss can do no wrong, may or may not outweigh the bad. Too much of the record, though, seems clumsy, a little forced, and far too safe. The title track is, to be fair, exactly the kind of song so many people rely on Springsteen for: it speaks to daily struggles of regular people trying to achieve their own version of the American Dream. “I’m working on a dream, but sometimes it seems so far away,” he sings, “I’m working on a dream, I know it will be mine some day” — a point he once would have gotten across with a story about a very specific, very interesting character that people would have been able to see elements of themselves in. It was his biggest strength — creating narratives that weren’t dumbed down or reduced to vague, clichéd mantras and yet still rang true with huge amounts of people. “Queen of the Supermarket” is about a totally creepy dude whose only source of joy is the girl at the supermarket checkout counter; it’s a nice enough story that would have been less disastrous if the lyrics weren’t quite so straightforward.
“Life Itself” is a good example of one of the record’s other big flaws, which is — and there’s really no nice way to say this — that it just sounds so incredibly… dorky. I have no idea if it was recorded digitally or to tape, and it really doesn’t matter. Over the years, we’ve learned that for the right amount of money (read: a lot), even analog can be made to sound so clean that it robs the songs of any inherent rawness. “Life Itself,” “Working on a Dream” and a few of others sound perpetually like they’re coming out of the speakers of your parents’ Toyota Camry — thin and with more separation and clarity than is ever necessary.
There’s also the matter of Springsteen’s vocals, which, even on some of the standout tracks, are troubling. It’s not because his voice doesn’t sound good — it does, actually, even better than on his other recent albums — or even because of the sometimes questionable lyrics, as much as it’s because of his awkward phrasing. It’s always been a problem for him, truthfully, but it’s one that in the past he was able to overcome with unimpeachable style, energy and, more than anything else, conviction. Here, though, he seems unwilling to rewrite lines that don’t quite fit the melody, or even to figure out a different way to deliver them (many of which are obvious even to me, and I don’t know how to write songs). It’s just as much producer Brendan O’Brien’s fault as it is Springsteen’s.
It’s a strange time in Springsteen’s career. Dispite certain missteps, he’s been in the middle of a renaissance since 9/11, and it’s far from a coincidence. He makes the kind of records that people need on a very gut level, which is exactly why he’s been able to maintain such a loyal fan base over the years, even when the press couldn’t be bothered with him. Young bands have begun to recognize the strong feelings he inspires, and, naturally, they’ve sought to capture it for themselves. It’s the kind of far-reaching effect that, frankly, leaves us music critics (even the ones who lavish him with ridiculous five-star reviews in Rolling Stone, I hope) feeling like our jobs are mostly pointless. I know full well that, for so many people, the shoddy, tasteless production and the handful of botched lyrics I dwell on could never even begin to offset everything else he’s done for them. And believe me, it’s not as bad a feeling as you might think.