Stephen Colbert was always interested in looking at both sides of an issue. Discussing our last president, he always presented the issue fairly: “George Bush: Great president… or greatest president?”
You get the feeling that, around the editorial offices of Rolling Stone, discussions of artistic quality are similar.
David Fricke’s profile of Springsteen in the new issue (RS doesn’t post all of its stuff online) tells us, again, that Bruce is rockin’ at his best once more:
Springsteen … is at a new peak in his career. Working on a Dream is Springsteen’s third great album with the E Street Band in a decade.
Well, fineâ€”nothing wrong with giving a rock warhorse a little slack in a cover story. Turn to the review section, though and you find that reviewer Brian Hiatt, apparently having been swappin’ thoughts with Fricke by the Coke machine, is happy to restate his colleague’s thesis:
Working on a Dream is the richest of the three great rock albums Springsteen has made this decade with the E Street Band â€” and moment for moment, song for song, there are more musical surprises than on any Bruce album you could name,
If you actually listen to the album, you will instead hear what you’ve been hearing for too many years from Springsteen. That his once-magisterial songwriting skills have deserted himâ€”that his lyrics are labored and melodies are strained. He and his latter-day producer (Brendan O’Brien) try to cover that up by weighing the songs down with various studio experimentations, which just make for jarring tonalÂ inconsistencies across the tracks.
Working on a Dream is no different. “The Wrestler,” the Springsteen song that plays over the credits of the Mickey Rourke movie of the same name, is Springsteen’s least-bad songwriting effort in 15 years or more.* That is billed here as a bonus track for some reason. Leaving that aside, the rest of the album is just like his previous two, only less interesting, more strained, and equally forgettable.
The reviews don’t say, for example, that the leadoff track, the ponderous, interminable “Outlaw Pete,” is a meandering mess. Why, for example, does Pete keep wailing, for a eight full minutes, “I’m Outlaw Pete”? Isn’t that kind of a stupid name? He also keeps intoning, for no reason I can discern, “Can you hear me?” It’s not an exact repetition, but it’s more than vaguely reminiscent of the recurring line in the opening track of Springsteen’s last album, “Radio Nowhere”: “Is there anybody alive out there?” Both are trafficking in some crude existential angst, but in neither song does the singer make it sound anything but received.
There’s a song here that’s supposed to be a tribute to the late Danny Federici; that’s heavy-handed and forgettable as well. The worst thing about the album is the odd processed croon that O’Brien has been crafting for Springsteen. On songs here like “Surprise Surprise” or “Kingdom of Days” it sounds thin and inappropriate. The Rolling Stone reviewer compares them to Roy Orbison, but bel canto isn’t exactly the phrase that springs to mind as you hear Springsteen, rather than just attacking out-of-range melodies and deriving a little drama from the process, attempt to actually sing them. He doesn’t have power as a traditional singer (Orbison’s unstoppable voice, of course, came at your body full force, from head to toe), andâ€”how to put this nicelyâ€”it doesn’t really sound like Springsteen is pitching correctly.
So, okay, it’s Orbison-likeâ€”minus the multi-octave range, the preternatural impact of it, and the actual singing proficiency.
Those are a few of the reasons his E Street band records have become unlistenable. (Don’t get me started on The Seeger Sessions.) At Rolling Stone, it’s a five star review. (His record last year, Magic, got a five-star review as well.) (So did The Rising**.)
* Says Fricke: “[Springsteen] has already started the new year with a Golden Globe for his theme song to The Wrestler and is assured an Academy Award nomination as well.” Not so much.
** If you want to look up the review of The Rising on Rolling Stone’s alphabetical list of reviews, remember that in Wenner World, it’s filed under “T.”