Bruce Springsteen's new CD "Working on a Dream" hits stores today and many music critics and E Street fanatics are going to proclaim that their beloved Boss "picked up where he left off after the brilliant 'Magic.'"
That's one way of looking at it.
As an unapologetic Springsteen supporter, I have a slightly different take. To me,"Working on a Dream" seems like a case of New Jersey's favorite son not "picking up where he left off" a solid 2007 album, but rather "putting out the songs he left off 'Magic.'"
We can start with the disclaimers. "Working on a Dream" is not without its charms. The 13 songs represented are better and more challenging -- sonically and especially lyrically -- than 95 percent of what passes for new music these days.
"My Lucky Day" is a rabble-rousing song that will fit perfectly into the opening slot or the No. 2 hole on his next tour. "The Wrestler," arguably the best song on the disc, won a Golden Globe and should have been nominated for an Academy Award. "Surprise, Surprise" is a charming slice of British Invasion-inspired pop. "What Love Can Do" contains poetic lyrics. "Good Eye" is a bluesy, bullet microphone rave up. And, "The Last Carnival" is an elegant tribute to the E Street Band's late organist, Danny Federici, an original member who died during the last tour after a battle with melanoma
I really like more than half of the songs on "Working on a Dream" and I don't hate the rest. For most bands, that kind of batting average would make for a 4 ½-star effort (on a scale of 1-5).
Springsteen, who wrapped the "Magic" tour with a show at Harley-Davidson's 105th reunion in Milwaukee and will headline the Super Bowl halftime show on Sunday in Tampa, has set a ridiculously high standard for himself.
The fact that he and the band are still putting out vibrant, interesting music speaks volumes about his talent, vision and the bonds of the group that evolved from Jersey Shore outfits like Child and Steel Mill in the early 1970s.
In recent interviews, Springsteen has talked about "The Rising," "Magic" and "Working on a Dream" as a three-record suite that he will put up against anything else released in that time period. That's an interesting way of looking at the period the Boss referred to onstage as the "rebirth and rededication" of the E Street Band. Taken as a trio, those CDs contain some powerful moments.
To this listener, though, "Working on a Dream" is the weakest link in the chain.
"The Rising" was inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks. "Magic" was a reaction to Springsteen's disdain for the Bush Administration and the direction of the country at large. "Working on a Dream," which was recorded shortly after "Magic," doesn't seem to have a central message -- outside of hope and some joy over Obama's recent presidential victory.
The lack of a unifying purpose, coupled with the fact that producer Brendan O'Brien's lush arrangements, Springsteen's lilting, crooning singing style and the "'Pet Sounds' meets Electric Light Orchestra" feel of some of the tracks are no longer surprising serve to reduce the overall impact of the work. (Maybe if we hadn't been hooked on the far superior "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" from the last record, we'd be more forgiving this time around).
Judging on craftsmanship, the work is first-rate. You can question the wisdom of opening a CD with an eight-minute spaghetti Western like "Outlaw Pete," but it's hard to argue with the technical mastery displayed by the players. "This Life" and "Kingdom of Days" make you wonder how they'll be improved in a live setting (Bruce and Co. always seem to find a way). But, other songs make you wonder why they left the vault of a guy who has obsessed over quality control for decades.
Springsteen lost me with "Queen of the Supermarket," an ode to a grocery store checkout girl that is mired in evocative but trifling imagery and bottoms out with a seemingly gratuitous use of the f-bomb.
This is Springsteen's fourth record with O'Brien at the soundboard. Here's hoping that Bruce got the "Pet Sounds" stuff out of his system and calls Rick Rubin to get back to basics like Johnny Cash did years ago.
Springsteen is still the reigning heavyweight champ of rock songwriting. This record, though, is a technical knockout instead of a decisive knockout.
"Outlaw Pete" -- Marty Robbins has channeled himself through Bruce -- along with Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons (of KISS). It's a long song that for me, doesn't go anywhere. Also, if you are going to write about the criminal fringe, give me the leader of the Pythons, a guy they just call Zero -- not a diaper wearing bank robber.
"My Lucky Day" -- This is my prediction for the show opener until the second leg of the tour where it will drop to the No. 2 slot. I would like to see it a bit more raw, but for me it's still a great song.
"Working on a Dream" -- Puh-leeze. Any more syrupy and it would be in an IHOP commercial.
"Queen of the Supermarket" -- Writing about a supermarket? You gotta be kidding me. Unless the supermarket is "beneath that giant Exxon sign ..." I am not shopping there. HOWEVER. I absolutely LOVE this song. It has all the imagery that you love in a Bruce song. I just wish it wasn't about a grocery clerk.
"What Love Can Do" -- I can tell you what love can't do -- get me to like this song.
"This Life" -- Dear Mr. O'Brien. I am very happy that you can re-capture the "Pet Sounds" sound for the second straight album. But this song sucks.
"Good Eye" -- I had to get through the previous two to get back to a decent song. He picked up the "bullet mic" feel from last tour's "Reason to Believe" and turned it into a kick-ass song. Just like he turned the "Tenth Avenue" breakdown into "Livin' in the Future." This reminds me of "Spare Parts." This will be awesome live.
"Tomorrow Never Knows" -- Nice little ditty. Seems out of place here though.
"Life Itself" -- Dark, masterful Bruce at his best. Could have fit well on "The Rising." The musical feel of "World's Apart" with the introspection of "Nothing Man." This song will crush live.
"Kingdom of Days" -- Three words ... where's the bathroom?
"Surprise, Surprise" -- Great hook. Very poppy. It will be the sing-a-long show stopper of the tour a la "Waiting on a Sunny Day." I want to hate this song, but I can't. So I will just hate the banal simplicity of the lyrics.
"The Last Carnival" -- An amazing tribute to Danny. I finally came around to it when I saw the accompanying video. If you are a true fan, watch the video. The song explodes your heart into a million pieces and makes you want to learn to play the accordion.
"The Wrestler" -- In a word -- "f*cking brilliant." You can have the most perfect life world and this song would still make you feel empty and lonely. If you know the Mickey Rourke character, this song captures him just as "Streets of Philadelphia" captured Tom Hanks' character. Why this wasn't nominated for an Academy Award, I don't know. Academy members, I want a do-over.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.