By Joel Francis
For someone whose live converts are so immediate and visceral, Bruce Springsteen’s studio albums often need time to marinate before digesting.
Unlike Springsteen’s previous album – 2007’s “Magic” – “Working On A Dream” has not revealed any new flavors since its release two months ago. The record is overcooked in parts, underdone in others and often lacking necessary ingredients.
Opening cut “Outlaw Pete” is an obvious overcooked number. Clocking in at eight minutes, the arrangement shows Springsteen’s love of Ennio Morricone, but nicks part of its melody from Kiss’s late-’70s disco hit “I Was Made For Loving You.” This faux pas would be more forgivable if Springsteen hadn’t borrowed “Jenny (867-5309)” for his previous album’s opener, “Radio Nowhere.” The real problem, though, lies in the words. Pete’s story is never as interesting as its musical setting, and the lyrics are flat-out lazy, rhyming “feet” with “Pete,” “Dan” with “man” and “side” with “slide.” It would be easy to mistake this as a children’s song if everything else weren’t so earnest.
On the other side, “Queen of the Super Market” is severely underdone. The attempted portrait of a supermarket as an erotic smorgasbord is even sillier in song than it appears on paper. Again, Springsteen’s word choice is questionable, dropping an f-bomb in the last verse so out of place it could have been a suggestion from Ryan Adams.
Most tracks fall somewhere in between. Lead single “My Lucky Day” is good, but doesn’t stand out as an evergreen concert staple a la “Badlands” or “Mary’s Place.” Ditto for the second single, “Working on a Dream,” which would work better without the whistled solo.
Several numbers find Springsteen flexing his pop muscles, singing sunny love songs in under three minutes. The best of these, “Surprise,” is little more than a constant repetition of the title in a Brian Wilson vein that works, um, surprisingly well.
When the band gets it right, the results are spectacular. “Good Eye” and bonus track “A Night With the Jersey Devil” are distorted blues stompers that could have appeared on a Fat Possum release. “The Wrestler” is a dark human portrait in the vein of “Devil’s and Dust” that deserves all the accolades and awards it received from its connection to Mickey Rourke’s film.
Easily the best song, though, is “Last Carnival,” a tribute to fallen E Streeter Danny Federici. The affecting ballad has a gorgeous vocal arrangement along the lines of “My City of Ruins” and poignant lyrics that use a fairground as a metaphor for lost friendship.
Ultimately, “Working on a Dream” works best as an appetizer that can tickle the taste buds at times, but is unsatisfying as an entrée.