- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bruce Springsteen

Working on a Dream

If you thought “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” that splashy Phil Spector throwback from Bruce Springsteen’s last album, “Magic,” was a revelation, read no further.

Buy your copy of “Working on a Dream,” and let’s stay friends.

However, if, as it did for me, the track puts you in mind of someone trying to imitate Frank Sinatra under the influence of methaqualone, read on.

With “Working on a Dream,” Mr. Springsteen goes all in: It’s his most conceptually ambitious album since 1975’s “Born to Run.”

The difference between then and now is that Mr. Springsteen is no longer that starry-eyed 25-year-old composing hungrily in a fleabag apartment in central Jersey.

Today, he’s … well, here’s Mr. Springsteen revealing the inspiration for the audaciously ill-conceived new track “Queen of the Supermarket” in an interview with London’s Guardian newspaper: “They opened up this big, beautiful supermarket near where we lived. [Wife] Patti and I would go down, and I remember walking through the aisles - I hadn’t been in one in awhile - and I thought, ‘This place is so spectacular. This place - it’s a fantasy land!’ ”

The narrator of the song - a weepily-sung ballad in the key of cheese - finds himself lusting after a white-aproned cashier; the “cool promise of ecstasy fills the air.”

A porno set in Wegmans: Oh, dear, where to start?

Perhaps, Mr. Man of the People, if you did your own shopping more often, you wouldn’t read absurd, libidinous Freudian subtexts into a well-stocked grocery store.

“Working on a Dream,” produced, once again, by the spectacularly, feverishly unsubtle space-filler Brendan O’Brien, has intentions of large-scale Spectorian sweetness - but it’s as stale and hardened as a gingerbread house in January.

It aims for “Pet Sounds” and lands instead on the soundtrack of “Xanadu.”

Seriously.

Mr. Springsteen isn’t a great melodist; that was never his strength.

“Working on a Dream,” with its showy, wall-of-schmaltz orchestrations and endless oohing-and-ahhing exhalant vocal overdubs, needed great melodies to succeed - indeed, simply to make sense.

If you coaxed him out of his Minneapolis basement and gave him a generous production budget, Paul Westerberg could write circles around this album. Heck, Ryan Adams forgets better melodies than Mr. Springsteen musters here, to say nothing of lyrics that add up to the Boss’ slackest ever.

At eight minutes, album-opener “Outlaw Pete” is a snoozy, pointless mess. Is it a tongue-in-cheek Wild West opera? Or a shape-shifting masterpiece about a noir anti-hero who can’t escape his past? I couldn’t care less after minute four (although, to be honest, I do perk up a bit in the dramatic final minute, when I hear echoes of one of my favorite catalog numbers, “Take ‘em as They Come”).

You want to forgive a pedestrian track like “Lucky Day,” one of the album’s breeziest, but it never differentiates between verse and chorus - a laziness Mr. Springsteen and Mr. O’Brien try to ameliorate by force-fitting a minor-key bridge over which saxman Clarence Clemons sneaks in a solo. (Big Man: So good to hear from you!)

When “What Love Can Do” introduces itself with the skittering tempo typically found in the precincts of “hot adult-contemporary” radio, you’re in no such forgiving mood. By now, we’ve fallen from the cliffs of “Xanadu” and descended straight into the depths of Bon Jovi and Desmond Child.

The album rankles so much primarily because of its pushiness, which, pre-O’Brien, was not Mr. Springsteen’s style. On the refrains of the “Up with Obama” title track, he harmonizes with himself in the amiable way of Traveling Wilburys-era Roy Orbison - but, later on “Surprise, Surprise,” the band lurches into a “Pretty Woman” shout-out with all the grace of “Tonight Show” bumper music.

If this all sounds overly snipe-y, there’s this: Nils Lofgren plays a killer backward guitar solo on the otherwise flat, flirting-with-suicide tale “Life Itself”; the same track features lovely, Roger McGuinnesque 12-string electric-guitar overdubs (whether by Mr. Springsteen, Mr. Lofgren or sidekick Steven Van Zandt, I’m not sure).

“Tomorrow Never Knows” is a pleasant skiffle, and “Good Eye” is the album’s bluesy black sheep. With a scraggly banjo, wildly distorted vocals and harmonica reminiscent of Mr. Springsteen’s “bullet-mic” performance of “Reason to Believe” in 2005, the latter sounds like Bruce is on a rootsy lark with his young buddies from Philly, Marah.

The final official track, “The Last Carnival,” is a bittersweet whisper of a tribute to Danny Federici, the E Street keyboardist who died last year. (“The Wrestler,” a stunning bonus track from the movie of the same name, closes the album.)

Mr. Federici’s son, Jason, appropriately lends accordion to the song, and, with talk of midways and high wires and a certain “Billy” character, “The Last Carnival” is a sequel of sorts to 1973’s “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” - and a welcome connective thread to a recording history Mr. Springsteen seeks to antedate with this misbegotten sonic homage of an album.

If this were the 20th century and I had an actual, physical copy of “Working on a Dream,” it would go right in the junk drawer next to “Human Touch.”

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