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Friday, February 20, 2009

Album Review: Bruce Springsteen - Working On a Dream

After keeping a fairly low profile in the '90s, Bruce Springsteen has been churning out albums as if he's making up for lost time. His creative resurgence (and first album with The E Street Band since Born in the USA) was kicked off with 2002's The Rising, a strong record, but often a chore to get through, with a bloated running time and tracks that could be just plain boring ("World Apart," "Further On," I'm looking at you). Next came Devil's and Dust, a mostly dark folk album; the excellent We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions; and last year we got Magic, his second album of the decade with The E Street Band, which was perhaps the poppiest album of his career, and featured gems like supremely melodic "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" and the piledriving "Radio Nowhere."

With Working On a Dream, Springsteen has completed what is essentially a trilogy of albums with The E Street Band chronicling the country's mood since 9/11. The Rising documented the saddness, Magic talked about the anger at Bush's bungling of our response to the tragedy, and Working On a Dream chronicles the glimmer of hope we now seem to feel. Interesting, but is Working any good?

The answer is yes, it's definitely good, but it's not the 5-star album Rolling Stone said it was. The songs here are even catchier than anything on Magic (which is not a bad thing -- Springsteen has always been a great pop writer) and it's nice to see him embracing his love of Roy Orbison, the Beach Boys and Phil Spector on tracks like "Queen of the Supermarket." To be sure, there are some excellent vocals on here, and some truly great songs. Lyrically, Springsteen seems like he's on autopilot, but it's hard to care when he's churning out some of the best melodies of his career ("Surprise, Surprise," "Tomorrow Never Knows"). (On the other hand, "Outlaw Pete" may be the worst thing you'll ever hear in your life, with annoying, unfunny lines like, "He robbed a bank in his diapers and his little bare baby feet/
All he said was 'Folks, my name is Outlaw Pete.'" And it lasts for over 8 minutes. Ugh.)

My main problem with the album is Brendan O'brien's suffocating production. What was great about all the E Street albums, up to and including Born in the USA, was the full band sound. On "Born to Run," every instrument is given its own space, exemplifying the warmth of analog, and is one of the most beautiful rock epics ever recorded. But Working is a digital record through and through, with instruments burying each other in a compressed mix. It's unfortunate, but it makes this album sound rushed and bland.

Still, if you can get past the production, it's a solid record. It's hummable, positive, and fun, in ways that Springsteen hasn't been in a long time.

Grade: B


caroline carr said...

nice review. haven't heard it yet... but, to be honest, i was really hoping that you would provide a link to his halftime sliding-into-the-camera performance. i caught this on conan the other night:

CalogeroMiraMusic said...

Nice cover!