It’s no coincidence that the release of Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Working on a Dream, comes a week after the joyous inauguration of President Obama. Bruce came out in support of Obama during the primary, and he stumped for his man just as he had for John Kerry.
The venture into politics is paying off huge: besides the obvious benefits of having a competent President, the Obama campaign appearances were clearly the launching pad for a whirlwind of publicity: a Golden Globe win here, an inauguration gig there, a Wal-Mart exclusive compilation for casual fans who should know all those songs already, a performance at the Oscars (that one didn’t pan out), and the pinnacle of American consumer culture, the Super Bowl half-time show.
But the twelve new songs being promoted in this blitz may not be worth the trouble. The official info on Working on a Dream stresses the relative ease with which Springsteen wrote and recorded the new tunes, so it’s startling to discover how slight they are for the most part – Springsteen can be accused of many things, but half-assery isn’t usually one of them.
The problems are apparent from the outset. “Outlaw Pete” is a goofy, tongue-in-cheek epic grabbing from Morricone, The Seeger Sessions, and a melody stolen from KISS: as a stand-alone, it works well enough, and it will clearly kick ass live. But like his pal the President, Bruce never does anything without thinking about it, especially when it comes to sequencing his albums. It’s immediately disconcerting that this utterly meaningless track is the opener. Sure enough, Working on a Dream lacks any sort of encompassing theme, the binding thought that marks the best Springsteen work.
It’s an accepted truism that good art demands conflict, and that’s especially true of Springsteen. His first eight studio albums thrived on the awkward terror of growing up, the dread of thwarted ambitions, and the shame of failing his first marriage. Then Bruce got found his soul mate, moved to L.A., enjoyed domestic bliss and dropped the worst album of his career. Since then he’s regrouped, finding new inspiration in the plight of migrant workers and the ineffable tragedy of 9/11; and George W. Bush really pushed him to new heights (depths?) on 2007’s furious Magic.
Now, with Bush gone and nothing to fight against, Bruce seems to be slipping back to that Human Touch complacency, making up for the sudden lack of substance with an abundance of style. The songs are arranged with shimmering Sixties pop-rock in mind, and older ears than mine can spot all the little references. But when all the layers are stripped away, there’s often nothing there but lazy rhyme schemes, facile clichés, and worst of all, a distinct lack of purpose.
Two of Springsteen’s most cringe-inducing recordings appear here. “Queen of the Supermarket” is already infamous on the internets as an unfortunate self-parody of E Street bombast, not helped by its modest premise of an unspoken crush on the grocery checkout girl. Bruce can’t help that the Lonely Island beat him to the punch, but it’s a shame that with a little more care or restraint, the song could have been really sweet, and not a snicker-inducing companion to “57 Channels.” I hate “Good Eye” even more: it’s a maddeningly unfinished blues that puts Bruce’s beloved bullet mic to waste.
There is some good stuff though. The title track is a genuine piece of post-Obama zeitgeist; “My Lucky Day” recaptures the jangly pep of The River’s rockers. “Tomorrow Never Knows” (no relation to the Beatles masterpiece) is a jaunty country ditty that comes out on the right side of effortless vs. tossed-off. And despite the stupid lyrics, I enjoyed “Surprise, Surprise” – each singer in the band gets a turn singing the chorus, showcasing the well-worn camaraderie of the E Street Band.
The pair of songs closing the album are the real stand-outs. “The Last Carnival” is literally a sequel to “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” from The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle, but it’s also a memorial to the late E Street organist Danny Federici. And “The Wrestler” is the elegant, classically powerful title song from the movie. The truth and depth of feeling behind these two just highlights the strange hollowness of the rest of the album.
I’m not some boomer demanding authenticity in all of my art, but when you’ve built your whole career on authenticity, it’s easy to spot when you’re faking it, and for fuck’s sake, Bruce, you’re being outdone by an 18-year-old girl. Given both the quality of Springsteen’s career output and the emotional investment that fans like myself trust in Bruce, the apparent lack of effort feels something like a betrayal. But truth be told, I’m sure all will be forgiven sometime Sunday night. We’ll be seeing ya, Boss.