The Good: Decent lyrics, Good vocals
The Bad: Short, Unmemorable musical accompaniment, Vocally limited
The Basics: Repetitive in sound and lyrics and unchallenging with the vocals, Bruce Springsteen's Working On A Dream is shockingly average folk-rock.
On the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song "Into The Great Wide Open," there is the wonderful line from the A&R man, "I don't hear a single." That line resonates now in my mind as I consider Bruce Springsteen's latest opus, Working On A Dream after my two-dozenth listen to the album because that qualifies well the listening experience. The album, not truly a concept album, is arguably one of the least-challenging albums Springsteen has ever released and a poor follow-up to the surprise genius of Magic. On Working On A Dream, Springsteen growls his way through his songs in very familiar ways and his statements are neither timely nor particularly interesting.
This is not to say Working On A Dream is a poor album; it isn't. But it doesn't have a single song that stands out in such a way that makes one think "well, that should be on his all-time greatest hits." Instead, almost all of the songs sound strangely familiar, like other Bruce Springsteen songs released over his vast career. As I listen to "What Love Can Do," I know I've heard it from him before. And the songs that don't sound like previously-released Springsteen seem to sound like one another: "Outlaw Pete," "Queen Of The Supermarket," and "The Wrestler" all seem to have the same general musical theme, vocal presentation, and instruments. "This Life" I recognize as a variation on "Girls In Their Summer Clothes," as that was one of my favorite songs off Magic. The point here is that if one is looking for something new from Bruce Springsteen, they are likely to feel letdown by Working On A Dream.
With thirteen songs, clocking out at 51:34, Working On A Dream is mostly the musical vision of Bruce Springsteen as he is now. All of the songs were written by Springsteen and he provides the lead vocals on all of the tracks. As well, he plays multiple instruments throughout the album, from the guitars and harmonica that are no surprise to fans of Springsteen to the keyboards, percussion and glockenspiel on other songs. But Springsteen does not have anything to do with the production aspects of the album, though given his celebrity one assumes this is the musical vision he set out with and is pleased enough with its execution.
But Working On A Dream is essentially a short, contemporary folk-rock album with a few dreadfully long songs. Springsteen wears out his welcome with "Outlaw Pete," an interminably long story song with the recurring refrain of "Can you hear me?" The song is an adequate storysong, but between the many times the musical protagonist identifies himself and cries out to potential listeners, he is hardly an empathetic musical character. Fortunately, the album gets better after the opening song.
What follows are songs where Springsteen sings about trying to make it by (“Working On A Dream”), falling in love with commoners ("Queen Of The Supermarket"), and the uncertainty of time ("Tomorrow Never Knows"). Many of the songs - like "The Last Carnival" - have a folk-rock sensibility of being musical storysongs where the song is just an evocation, a musical painting, of a specific time and place and with Springsteen's vocals, almost the entire album sounds like it is created on the heat and wind of the dustbowl. The "bonus" track, "The Wrestler," actually fits the album quite well as it is quiet and about the struggles of day-to-day life.
Working On A Dream, the album, has a subdued musical quality to it. The only song Springsteen actually sounds like he is in competition with his instrumental accompaniment - from the E Street Band - is on "My Lucky Day," which is also one of the more energetic songs. The problem with the music on the album is that it seems familiar and track to track there is little differentiation in the sound of the songs. "My Lucky Day" blends into Working On A Dream and into "Queen Of The Supermarket;" they all have different tunes, but they utilize essentially the same combinations of guitars, bass, keyboards and drums in such similar ways that the songs blend together. On the last half of the album, before "The Wrestler," the songs are so indistinct that after two dozen listens, looking at the titles and lyrics in the liner, I still couldn't pick out a melody to any of the songs!
What makes the album Working On A Dream such a borderline album ultimately are the lyrics. Bruce Springsteen is a great writer, but on this album, he beefs up an already short running time through sheer repetition of lines. "Surprise, Surprise" has the title word repeated an agonizing forty-two times over the course of the brief, uncomplicated song! The title track is a little ditty which repeats its title at least twenty times over the course of the three and a half minute song. One song with such repetition would be one thing, two would be another, but with virtually every track having the same style of lyrically-repetitive arrangements, the album soon becomes problematic and unfortunately dull.
What ultimately got me to make the narrow recommend for Working On A Dream was the lyrics, though. On "Queen Of The Supermarket," Springsteen paints such a picture of unadulterated reality with lines like "With my shopping cart I move through the heart / Of a sea of fools so blissfully unaware / That they're in the presence of something wonderful and rare / The way she moves behind the counter / Beneath her white apron her secrets remain hers / As she bags the groceries, her eyes so bored / And sure she is unobserved." Springsteen is a poet and he makes magical the common on his songs.
And even on the brief "Good Eye," Springsteen manages to do something that few artists even attempt these days. Coming out of the 1930s and 1960s, there were a plethora of folk songs that have since become almost universally-known, but there are few artists who seem to want to try to add to that tradition to create something that can so effectively endure as "If I Had A Hammer," "Blowin' In The Wind," or even "Puff The Magic Dragon." Springsteen gives it a fair stab with "Good Eye," though, with its memorable, simple rhymes "I was standing by the river where the cold black water run / I had my good eye to the dark and my blind eye to the sun / I had all earthly riches I had each and every one . . . But I had my good eye to the dark and my blind eye to the sun." That song has a very classic folk-rock sound and sensibility to it and it is easy to envision kids in twenty years sitting around campfires singing it.
But those who have loved at least one other Bruce Springsteen album are unlikely to find much on Working On A Dream that sounds or feels different from what they have already heard. This is unfortunate and if Springsteen had taken longer and made another album like Magic, we would have said it was worth the wait. As it was, this album seems more like a Super Bowl halftime stunt.
The best song is "Queen Of The Supermarket," the low point is the terribly repetitive "Surprise, Surprise."
For other works by Bruce Springsteen, please check out my reviews of:
Born In The U.S.A.
The Ghost Of Tom Joad
Live In New York
Devils & Dust
We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions
For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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