For the past three years, Bruce Springsteen has been on a roll in the studio. The Boss has recorded three ambitious albums in that time, exploring his literary leanings (Devils & Dust, 2005), his admiration of folk music (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, 2006) and his thoughts about the dark realities of American life under George W. Bush (Magic, 2007).
Springsteen's new CD - Working on a Dream, out today - comes just 16 months after Magic hit the streets. In the halcyon days of his career, back in the mid-'70s and throughout the '80s, the New Jersey superstar was known to take at least two years between albums. Perhaps a little more time between Magic and the new release wouldn't have been a bad idea.
Working on a Dream doesn't sound rushed, but it is an erratic effort where style often trumps substance. Producer Brendan O'Brien, who worked on the artist's last three albums, goes for a majestic orchestral sound. Think streamlined takes on Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys and Phil Spector's famed Wall of Sound. In an obvious bid for commercial radio, he glosses over the rough-edged rock dynamics of classic Springsteen. But unlike the previous O'Brien-produced CDs, the legend's lyrics and melodies largely fail to transcend the ho-hum and the bells-and-whistles arrangements.
Nevertheless, Working on a Dream, released a week after Springsteen's participation in President Barack Obama's hope-filled inauguration, reveals a more exuberant side of the singer-songwriter. The somber, sometimes downright grim tone of Devils & Dust and Magic has been supplanted by a slightly whimsical approach. The music is full and plush, but often the songs don't make an immediate impression. Even after repeated listens, the album is forgettable.
The CD opens with "Outlaw Pete," a slick, eight-minute stab at country-folk with silly lyrics: "He was born a little baby on the Appalachian Trail/At six months old he'd done three months in jail/He robbed a bank in his diapers and little bare baby feet."
Maybe Springsteen was trying to show us a winking sense of humor here, but his overly earnest performance and the overcooked production undercut it all. The same is true about "Queen of the Supermarket," a snicker-inducing ballad where Springsteen declares, "I'm in love with the queen of the supermarket/As the evening sky turns blue/A dream awaits in aisle number two." The lyrics may sound like a Saturday Night Live parody of a Springsteen song. But the surging arrangement (swirling strings, stacked harmonies and even the rhythmic, electronic beep of a cash register) is the most creative on the album.
Springsteen deliversat least two rocking tunes - "My Lucky Day" and the hopeful title track - that slightly invoke his beloved roadhouse sound. But too often he seems buried beneath needless layers.
Download these: : "My Lucky Day," "Working on a Dream," "The Last Carnival"
Also in stores today, the acclaimed Scottish indie band Franz Ferdinand returns with its long-awaited third studio album, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand; R&B-pop; star Ciara takes us on a Fantasy Ride; and alt-rock band Hoobastank releases For(n)ever.