I'm as much a fan of the early, anthemic Springsteen as anyone; that's why it's so disappointing to hear Magic and the new Working On A Dream fawned over as late-period classics. (Rolling Stone)
Working on a Dream is the richest of the three great rock albums Springsteen has made this decade with the E Street Band — and moment for moment, song for song, there are more musical surprises than on any Bruce album you could name, from the Chess Records vocal distortion on the bluesy "Good Eye" to the joyous British Invasion pep of "Surprise, Surprise."
Working On A Dream contains nothing even close to the majesty and sweep of "Rosalita" or "Badlands," but that's setting the bar pretty high. What's more troubling is that the album's worst cuts could play as Springsteen parody. The opening "Outlaw Pete" is an outright disaster, with strings, tempo changes, and a faux classic rock guitar solo all used in an attempt to create some mythos. "Queen of the Supermarket" ("I'm in love with the queen of the supermarket/As the evening sky turns blue/A dream awaits in aisle number two") is (I think) supposed to be a working-class love ballad but sounds condescending. There are a few low-key winners: "My Lucky Day" and the title song could have been the third or fourth singles from an '80s or '90s Bruce album while "Surprise, Surprise" is admittedly infectious.
Springsteen's lyrics have long since ceased to feel rooted in anything personal or authentic (OK I'll give you "The Wrestler"). Instead of the misbegotten heroes of "Glory Days" or the troubled lovers of "Brilliant Disguise" (probably my favorite Springsteen song) we're treated to:
We reach for starlight all night long/but gravity's too strong/Chained to this earth we go on and on and on - "This Life"
Even The Rising had an urgency that seems to have disappeared. The Boss might do well to check in with his near contemporary Paul Simon, who seems able to draw lyrical inspiration from his own life and musical energy from working with new collaborators like Brian Eno. Musically the E Street Band comes off as a kind of collective background rumble on most of Working On A Dream, it's a relief to hear Clarence Clemons rip off a solo on the third or fourth track. As far as the vocals, no matter what the Rolling Stone review says Bruce ain't no Roy Orbison. When the hoopla of the forthcoming tour dies down, Springsteen should hit the creative road in search of some new collaborators and new subject matter. The Boss is trying way too hard to stay in charge.