Bruce Springsteen – Working On A Dream

Working On A Dream (2009)

C+

1. Outlaw Pete 2. My Lucky Day 3. Working On A Dream 4. Queen Of The Supermarket 5. What Love Can Do 6. This Life 7. Good Eye 8. Tomorrow Never Knows 9. Life Itself 10. Kingdom Of Days 11. Surprise, Surprise 12. The Last Carnival 13. The Wrestler

 

Remember 2009? The dawn of the Obama era? Boy, were we stupid back then. All idealistic and naive and thinking all the world’s problems would soon be solved and there would be ponies and ice cream for everyone. Oh, how little we knew. Namely that Mitch McConnell is a radioactive turtle sent from the future to destroy the lives of poor people and the guy in the White House probably isn’t going to have much of an impact on day to day matters like, say, whether or not your deadbeat fiance will stop playing video games and take out the garbage for once.

As silly as it seems now, there was a pretty pervasive sense of euphoric optimism sweeping the country’s non-troglodydic population for, like, a few weeks back in the beginning of ‘09 that even Bruce Springsteen, Mr. Woes of the Working Class, fell for, even when we were still in the deepest throes of the Great Recession. Working on a Dream was released just a week following Obama’s inauguration, a few days before he played halftime at the Super Bowl, and apparently smack in the middle of a phase in which he couldn’t stop writing disgustingly happy, embarrassingly slight pop rock songs. It’s not even that these songs are political – in fact, other than the largely platitude-driven title track, none of them are in any kind of explicit way. It’s that Bruce was apparently so swept up in a fit of political joy, he determined he no longer needed to worry about using substantive themes and instead fill up almost an entire record with dippy love songs and dumb novelty shit about outlaw babies and supermarket cashiers.

Speaking, of let’s get the two obvious blunders on this thing that everyone always shits on out of the way first so we can talk about why much of the rest of the record doesn’t really work either. The album opens with “Outlaw Pete,” which, well… when the very first verse features the lines “At six months old he’d done three months in jail/He robbed a bank in his diapers and his little bare baby feet/All he said was, ‘Folks, my name is Outlaw Pete,’” forgive me if I don’t bother attempting to take the 7-and-a-half minutes of melodramatic strings, booming voice-of-God choruses, and verse after verse of cartoonish Western schtick that follow the least bit seriously. I think, based on his track record, we can all agree that Bruce Springsteen would be more than capable of writing a kickass Western epic if he wanted to. That’s not what “Outlaw Pete” is; it’s a laughably overblown children’s novelty song whose melody was stolen from KISS’s “I Was Made For Loving You.” Then we’ve got “Queen of the Supermarket,” in which Bruce, over a sickeningly syrupy backing, marvels at the wondrous beauty of his local Whole Foods like Marie Antoinette encountering a bakery for the first time. “Oh, my! Would you simply look at all this bread!” For a guy who has built his career on writing songs relatable to blue collar folks, Bruce fails so miserably with “Queen of the Supermarket” that the entire time the song is playing I’m completely unable to avoid the thought that Bruce probably hasn’t stored any groceries in his house that weren’t purchased by a personal shopper for 30 years.

OKAY. Phew. Bruce is old; we can forgive him for those couple of misbegotten dalliances. Honestly I’m more annoyed by how utterly puerile the love songs for Patti, mostly concentrated on side 2, are. I may have given Bruce a hard time for all those characters with silly names on his early records, but none of that bothers me nearly as much as the mushy, repetitive, and just plain amateurish romantic platitudes that constitute songs like “Kingdom of Days” (“I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you I do/You whisper ‘Then prove it, then prove it, then prove it to me baby blue’”) and “Surprise, Surprise” (“Today is your birthday we traveled so far we two/So let’s blow out the candles on your cake and we’ll raise a glass or two”). These songs sound like they were written by a pimply-faced teenager about his first high school girlfriend, not renowned rock ‘n roll poet Bruce Springsteen. And it sure doesn’t help when these sentiments are backed by fey, generic jangle pop (the two abovementioned turds), ultra-slight acoustic countryishness (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), or yet more sub-”Your Own Worst Enemy” squishy, practically plagiaristic Brian Wilson fetishism (“This Life”).

Yes, Working on a Dream teeters even farther into ‘60s pop tribute territory than Magic, but lacks most of the rock muscle of its predecessor. Which means that while the melodies are generally still catchy, the arrangements feel much paler, derivative, and, especially, lacking in the E Band’s personality. Little Steven is mostly just playing basic arpeggios, Roy Bittan is busy creating fake string-scapes, and Clarence, whose health was failing by this point, only gets in a couple of brief plug-and-play solos. To its credit, only the title track, with its keening refrain, late-’70s-ish arrangement flourishes, and working class imagery actually sounds like “the E Street Band doing their take on a happy, jangly pop song” rather than “a generic happy, jangly pop song featuring Bruce Springsteen and a bunch of random studio hacks.”

It’s a shame, because on the too-few occasions Bruce does give the E Street Band some material with teeth that they can lean into a little bit, as on Magic, the results are impressively spry. Witness “My Lucky Day,” a Stonesy banger with a big, billowing hook that even features Bruce and Little Steven doing some joyously creaky harmonizing like they were back on The River again. And “What Love Can Do” doesn’t rock, exactly, but even its folksy ass has more balls than pretty much anything else on here thanks to Bruce’s propulsive minor key strumming and growly delivery.

However, considering how overly flowery most of Working on a Dream is in terms of both arrangement and tone, it makes sense that I like its two most stripped down, downbeat tracks the best. And hey, they’re sequenced together right at the end of the album so you can just skip all the other crap and not miss much! The first is “The Last Carnival,” a sorta early Dylan-style folk tune that supposedly a sequel to “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.” The second (technically labeled a “bonus track” but it’s appeared on every version of the album since it first came out so what the heck is the point of that) is the Golden Globe-winning “The Wrestler,” which Bruce wrote for the Mickey Rourke film of the same name. Both songs are nicely rootsy and betray a palpable road-weariness that I find to be far more befitting of a 60-year old legend of working class music than all those la-di-da balls of fluff on this album. But what do I know.



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