Beginning with 2002’s The Rising, Bruce Springsteen’s work with producer Brendan O’Brien has been one of small peaks, low valleys, and largely diminishing returns. In a seemingly counterintuitive move, O’Brien has slowly stripped the roughness—and by extension, the edge and charm—off Springsteen’s music, surrounding him with shiny Mellencamp-like mockups of his earlier work, all folksy, bright-eyed humanism, soggy ballads, and slim, slick rock songs woefully short on muscle and energy. Even the best material from this era, primarily off 2005’s Devils and Dust, was successful mainly by virtue of its strong lyrics, otherwise sounding like a cleaner version of Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad. Yet despite O’Brien’s anemic production, much of the blame for Working on a Dream undoubtedly lies with Springsteen himself; drained of his angry energy, he dribbles out material that’s for the most part goofy and painfully bloodless.
Album opener “Outlaw Pete” matches Devils and Dust in tone and content, heading out West for a dustbowl tale of crime and misfortune that feels in knowing command of its often ridiculous lyrics: “At six months old he’d done three months in jail/Robbed a bank in his diapers and little bare baby feet,” the song begins, but its still buoyant and well constructed, even with a silly outro that comes wrapped in a bow and a guitar hook that sounds cribbed from Kiss’s “I Was Made for Loving You.” But even this middling material sets a precedent that the majority of the album cannot match. Whether a consequence of Obama’s victory or otherwise, Springsteen’s role as the new president’s working-class bandleader has caused a cloying optimism to dominate his work, creating a drearily cheerful atmosphere.
Even flawed recent efforts like Magic retained some power by keeping the gritty, angry voice that defined Springsteen’s best work. But songs like “Surprise, Surprise” and “My Lucky Day” feature a new voice for Springsteen that is boundlessly content, even joyful, with no edge of darkness or despair. The result is disasters like “Queen of the Supermarket,” a maudlin paean to a beautiful cashier that stretches Springsteen’s signature populism far past self-parody. Cringe-worthy elements abound, from thick, sappy strings to modulated voice effects and lines like “As the evening sky turns blue/A dream awaits in aisle number two.”
It might seem mean-spirited to take swipes at Springsteen for sounding happy, but as so often is the case with art, contentedness does not make for captivating material, and short of a few bright moments, Working on a Dream is a mostly barren effort, a toothless album whose fascination with good vibes leaves it feeling soft and expressionless. Perhaps it’s fitting that the only fully redeeming feature here is “The Wrestler,” a song composed outside of the frame of the rest of the album, from the Darren Aronofsky film of the same name. It is bleak even by Springsteen’s standards, depressing and tinged with an air of hopeless defeatism, but the dose of stripped-down reality it provides, though clearly too little too late, is just what the album needs.