By now, the story is famous. Bruce Springsteen, driving down the road after 9/11, pulled up at a stoplight, only to be accosted by a fan. Springsteen, by then living in relative obscurity after a decade of low-key solo albums without the E Street Band, never expected that a national disaster would reignite his creativity. “We need you — now!” the fan shouted, and the Boss rediscovered his muse.
That all sounds grandiosely mythic, like a story Springsteen himself would pen, but since then he has been furiously writing and recording with the E Street Band, unashamed to tap into his own legacy. In tapping into that legacy, Springsteen has increasingly returned to the lush pop production so prevalent on his early albums, turning to producer Brendan O’Brien to build layer upon layer of instrumentation and voice. Together, the two have been able to create a sound that is huge without being bombastic — a feat given Springsteen’s dangerous tendency to go too far.
Working on a Dream is Springsteen’s third album with both O’Brien and the E Street Band since 9/11, and like the previous two — The Rising and Magic — it is meticulously arranged and produced, from the elaborate strings on “Kingdom of Days” to the carefully-clipped loop that “Good Eye” is built upon. And like those two albums, the songs here are both helped and hindered by such managerial precision, which — as mentioned earlier — helps keep the Boss from falling off the creative ledge, but sometimes lends the songs a stilted feel.
That stilted feel is more prevalent on Working on a Dream, perhaps because the songs were written and recorded on the fly while the band toured in support of Magic. By bringing less-developed songs to the studio, Springsteen probably had to rely on O’Brien more often, his production talents needed to flesh out and make sense of ideas. And while there is no denying O’Brien’s production skills, they sometimes serve to render Springsteen’s ideas a bit too stiff. Majestic, it seems, is easy to aspire to, but more difficult to achieve.
Nowhere is this more obvious than on the aforementioned “Kingdom of Days”, a love song with wonderfully tender lyrics that, alone, evoke affection and appreciation. Placed in the context of the music, however, the lyrics cannot hold up the dead weight of the stiff, leaden instrumentation and arrangement. The song simply feels too stately and formal for a love song. If the lyrics were intended to move the listener, the music holds him in place, impatiently waiting for that sublime moment that never comes.
And then there’s “Queen of the Supermarket”, a song that sounds like an Saturday Night Live parody of a Springsteen song. Imagine this: Springsteen singing about being in love with a supermarket checker while massive amounts of strings swell and angelic voices swoon “I’m in the love with the queen of the supermarket” in the background. If I could cringe in print, I would. What’s worse, O’Brien’s production not only fails to keep Springsteen from sounding bombastic, it actually helps create a song that sounds pompous, bloated, and downright embarrassing.
And then there are songs that are pretty good, but sound somewhat undercooked, despite the big production. “My Lucky Day”, for example, hearkens back to the Saturday-night-at-the-pub vibe of “Glory Days”, but there’s little musical distinction between the verses and choruses. It starts out big, stays big, ends big. While a good song, it leaves the nagging feeling that it could have been great with some tweaking. The same holds true for the title track, which features an underdeveloped second verse and a lazily-whistled solo. Again, it’s not bad by any means, but it could have benefitted from more time in the oven.
This may all sound a bit harsh, but there are some solid tracks here. Not surprisingly, they tend to be the songs that lean more towards folk, when the arrangements are more spare and simple. “The Last Carnival”, for instance, tells the story of a trapeze artist who has fallen in love with her partner, only for the carnival’s run to reach an end. Autumnal and melancholy, it perfectly conveys the loss one feels when being separated from a loved one. “The Wrestler”, the song written for the movie of the same name, is also a folk gem. It’s a rare songwriter who can breathe new life into clichés, thus justifying their use, and Springsteen uses both a “one-trick pony” and a “one-legged dog” in his tale of a man who has no choice but to admit that he’s a has-been.
But it’s when Springsteen tries something unusual that Working on a Dream becomes truly worthwhile. “Good Eye” is an unexpected blues track, with Springsteen alternating between a demon-possessed growl and a searing harmonica. Crafted on top of a loop, it sounds both timeless and modern. Even more unique – and more rewarding – is “Life Itself”, a foreboding tale of love. Everything, from the distorted vocals to the backwards guitar, combine to create a song that is both intriguing and disturbing. Is it a celebration of love? An admission that love is inherently dangerous? This Springsteen needs to make more appearances on future albums — the one who’s not afraid to try something different.
Overall, then, Working on a Dream is not only a worthy album, but also an enjoyable one. But when you’ve built a career on inspiring nothing less than transcendence, is enjoyable really a worthy goal? When your fans have come to expect that feeling of epiphany, can you justify only giving them a glimpse of it? I get the feeling that driver would say no.