Working on a Dream
3 out of 5 stars
It’s no secret that Bruce Springsteen is one of the most distinguished songwriters of the rock era. In the past four decades, his expansive musical catalog is rivaled only by the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. The Boss’s most recent studio output is evidence that he feels he still has more work to do. Even so, Working on a Dream, his 16th studio release, is not among his finest.
The album has some outstanding individual songs, but as a whole it doesn’t present a compelling narrative with relatable characters, which was his winning formula on past albums. The new album’s themes are personal, but they lack a common purpose. Dream is a nice departure from its over-produced and overtly political predecessor, 2007’s Magic, but it fails to return Bruce to his glory days.
Springsteen touches on familiar subject matter throughout the title track as he delivers his customary American working class voice. Cheerful whistles between lines like “Now the cards I’ve drawn’s a rough hand / darling I straighten my back / and I’m working on a dream,” provide a refreshing take on often-revisited ground.
“Queen of the Supermarket” starts as a beautiful piano ballad, but as the words take shape, it begs the question: How did a song this ridiculous make it onto a Springsteen album? There is no irony and no underlying metaphor as the Boss croons over his newfound crush: a girl in the grocery store.
Thankfully, Dream picks up and soars in a number of spots, and musical clarity is paramount to the success of the album’s strongest cuts. “Tomorrow Never Knows” chugs along with its country-plucked acoustic guitar as a complacent Springsteen croons about how life’s beauty is completely unpredictable. “Tomorrow” is a new exercise for Bruce; he uses his lyrical prowess to feebly describe nature’s beautiful simplicity, holding off any mention of the material world until halfway through the song. For that restraint, the blue-collar Springsteen deserves some recognition.
“Life Itself” continues the mood of deep reflection and contemplation. The lyrics, “why do the things that connect us slowly pull us apart / ’til we fall away in our own darkness / stranger to our own hearts,” are among the album’s most stinging and potent lines. These flashes of great wisdom represent a trend of maturity running through Springsteen’s recent work. If Bruce in the ’70s thrived on impulse and wild youthful experience, the Bruce Springsteen of the 21st century shines brightest when contemplating life’s tougher questions.
“Good Eye” is a pleasant surprise as it fits well in Dream’s mixed bag of songs. On it, Bruce submerges himself in the gut-churning pulse of Delta blues while a whiny harmonica and Springsteen’s gritty vocals display an energized attitude reminiscent of his style on 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.
The album comes packaged with a bonus track, “The Wrestler,” the theme song for the new film of the same name. This underdog anthem is one of Springsteen’s finest songs in the past decade. Sparse instrumentation allows Bruce’s voice to take center stage as he relies on pure emotion to produce a spine-chilling effect. It’s the kind of song that could make a grown man cry. A stellar close to a mediocre album, it’s the perfect reminder of why we call this man “The Boss.”