Bruce Springsteen, 'Working on a Dream' (Columbia)

6
Working on a Dream
Critical Mass
Label: Columbia

by David Marchese

What's good for our heroes isn't always good for us. Dylan found God and lost the lyrical plot. Prince scrubbed "slave" from his face and followed his purple muse down the rabbit hole. Bruce Springsteen? At 59, after 35 years of grappling with the dark side of the American Dream, Jersey's favorite son has reached a promised land of sorts -- he's got his man in the White House, happiness at home, and a gig headlining the Super Bowl. Does it get any better than that? If we're talking Working on a Dream, the answer, unfortunately, is yes.

More Bruce Springsteen: >> The Feeling's Mutual >> Listen to Bruce Springsteen's New Album >> An Open Letter to Bruce Springsteen ?Mostly upbeat and major key, Springsteen's fifth studio album in six years plays like the sunlit counterpart to 2007's bleakly portentous Magic. But bliss isn't the Boss' bag. Without anything to push against, one ofrock's most eloquent lyricists is in the awkward position of having little of interest to say.

At least he says his nothings sweetly. The classic pop- and folk-derived melodies of "Life Itself" and the title track sound almost sacred when borne aloft by the E Street Band's majestic thrust. Brendan O'Brien's heavily layered yet clearly defined production further amps up the arena roar -- his wall of sound is audible from outer space.The album-opening "Outlaw Pete" is a thrilling eight-minute epic, its stock "Whiskey in the Jar" story line redeemed by a booming vocal, seesawing guitar line, and galloping strings. And don't be surprised if you let out a "Big Man!" when Clarence Clemons rips a sax solo on "My Lucky Day." Elsewhere, touches of backwards guitar, distorted harmonica, and subtle vocal loops show that these ol'-time rock'n'rollers aren't afraid to experiment.

If only all the carefully crafted music weren't continually undercut by clunky, banal lyrics. The leadoff verse of"Thunder Road" forever earned Springsteen the benefit of the doubt, but this album's glut of platitudes ("When the sun comes out tomorrow / It'll be the start of a brand new day" from "Surprise, Surprise," for instance) seems more uninspired than everyman. Likewise, the hokey "The Last Carnival" proves for the umpteenth time that a song built on big-top metaphors is doomed to failure. But the lyrical nadir is undoubtedly "Queen of the Supermarket," a widescreen melodrama about a cashier crush that for sheer overkill rivals Adam Sandler's Broooce parody "Lunchlady Land." "A dream awaits in aisle number two?" Somebody get a mop.

As anyone who's ever seen him in concert can attest, Bruce Springsteen doesn't shy from hard work. But people work hardest when they're hungry; and the man's 12 new musically sturdy, lyrically iffy love songs and tall tales suggest that America's most beloved rock icon sags when he's satisfied. For the majority of people, that's to be expected. For a hero like Springsteen, it's a disappointment.

Watch: Bruce Springsteen, "My Lucky Day"

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