Album of the Week: Bruce Springsteen's Working on a Dream
Obviously, the Boss had something to say, and wanted to say it fast. So good on him, ye Bard of the Boardwalk! However, even everything from an A-list artist won't rate an A. And thus, the dichotomy of Working on a Dream, which divides pretty much evenly among the good and the bad, with a touch of the ugly (the oversize packaging of the "deluxe" release won't fit on most CD shelves).
Perhaps not coincidentally, many of them are sung by Bruce in his newfound "crooning" voice that, when it works, it works amazingly (see Magic's "Girls in Their Summer Clothes"). They simply don't excite any enthusiasm or leave the listener with much of an impact, though Springsteen is still capable of turning a powerful and visceral phrase or two in them ("A bang, then stardust in your eyes/ A billion years or just this night," from "This Life").
The raucous rocker "My Lucky Day" - imbued by the good Prof. Roy Bittan's piano - will be the record's most lasting track. Kudos also to Bruce's channeling of R.L. Burnside's dirty, techno-looping Fat Possum blues on "Good Eye" (though his vocal is buried too much in the mix). And "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a nice turn on a country road, all acoustic pickin' and brushy drums.
The real payoff comes in the last three tracks, all Bruce gold. The heavenly choral harmonies of the Beach Boys and Phil Spector loom over "Surprise Surprise," a buoyant anthem of celebration (i.e. The Rising's "Mary's Place") that defies you not to crack a smile. "The Last Carnival" is one of the most touching songs in the Boss' entire canon, an elegiac and tear-jerking tribute to recently deceased E Street organist Danny Federici that also neatly brings "Wild Billy's Circus Story" (from The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle) into the present.
Working on a Dream has received a number of hagiographic critical hosannas, including a five-star review in Rolling Stone (then again, the magazine also gave Mick Jagger's last solo outing the same rating). They're just not deserved. Springsteen - like Bob Dylan and Neil Young - remains incredibly vital and contemporary at an age when most artists lean solely on past glories instead of pushing themselves. But in the end this Dream, while certainly pleasant, just isn't a wet one.