The question has been asked time and time again: is it possible to create truly smart, imaginative works when you're happy?
Bruce Springsteen's status as the voice of an unquiet generation has been documented -- both by critics and by his own PR team -- to the point of over-saturation, but this sense of unrest is so inherent in his work that it's hard not to consider it as part of the man himself. Periods of darkness in Springsteen's life and surroundings lead to his best works, from the creative struggles that plagued him after his burgeoning success (Darkness on the Edge of Town) to his drive to tell the stories of the isolated American (Nebraska) to his early experience with marriage and the failure thereof (Tunnel of Love).
Even in later years, after he became a man with a family, a fortune, and a long history of fame, Springsteen strived to maintain some sense of the working man. On The Ghost of Tom Joad and The Rising, he relied on social and historical context to build relevant and genuine (if sometimes saccharine) portraits of American struggle, heartbreak, and hope. Devils and Dust, a quiet attempt at a modern, multicultural patchwork of stories a la Tom Joad and Nebraska, had its missteps, but for the most part revealed the folk-obssesed songwriter we all assumed that he would age into.
Then came Magic, which kicked off strong with the charged wake-up call of "Radio Nowhere," bucking the quiet folk with the full energy of the E Street Band. Still, it lost that spark with relative ease, fading into mid-tempo numbers with sometimes-strong hooks but a lack of a real, connecting spark. His newest, Working On a Dream, continues in this measure. The album's eleven tracks touch on a patchwork of themes and a sense that Springsteen is trying to bring together all of his selves: the family man, the folk storyteller, and the spiritual hopeful.
At the same time, there's something missing here. This is apparent from the album's opening track, the Western-tinged "Outlaw Pete". "Pete" tells the kind of story Springsteen fans have come to adore: a man born into his own sense of badness, struggling to escape but ultimately, cruelly failing. The feel of the song is difficult to describe; it seems contrived in its rugged demeanor. There's a sense that Springsteen has begun to parody himself -- but hasn't he earned that right?
Elsewhere, radio-friendly tracks embrace the fact that Springsteen's audience consists, largely, of people more like himself than the tormented character portraits of his past. "My Lucky Day" is a catchy ode to love as the light that shines in dark times, choosing to forgo complicated lyrics in favor of Adult Alternative simplicity. The album's first single, title track "Working On a Dream", relies on a mix of broad themes (hope, love, middle-class struggle) to power its metaphor of the American dream as a ladder. "My hands are rough from working on a dream," he sings, and on one level, it works; on another, there is little suggestion as to what powers the narrator's troubles.
As with Magic, the middle of Working on a Dream is murky, undefined territory. Conceptually,"Queen of the Supermarket" makes sense: it's a snapshot in time, meant to bring a sense of possibility to an ordinary moment. Unfortunately, the moment here takes place in a grocery store, where a man's hopes and dreams are contained in the form of a store worker he has a crush on. The result is difficult to listen to and at times a bit creepy. "Surprise, Surprise" fails in a similar fashion: both songs are a touch too repetitive, and both attempt to paint pictures of everyday scenes (in "Surprise", it's a birthday) but don't delve deeply enough for those scenes to actually seem remarkable in any way.
It's where his sense of political disillusion and spiritual faith combine that Springsteen's better songs come to light. "What Love Can Do", recorded at the tail end of the Magic sessions, is a traditional "you and me against the world" anthem set against the backdrop of dissatisfied America in a not-yet-post-Bush world. "Life Itself" was born from this same time period, a dark and melodic tribute to the easily addictive nature of troubled souls. Bizarrely, the album takes these themes and then tries to rework them in multiple forms (as evidenced in "This Life" and "Kingdom of Days"). "Good Eye" does more or less the same, although it puts that theme on a blues-soaked pedestal for emphasis.
By this point, the record is awkward in its repetition, which is broken only by the simple and traditional feel of "Tomorrow Never Knows". Still, Springsteen is loathe to end on such a note; the album's two best tracks come at its very end. "The Last Carnival" is the kind of character portrait the rest of the record is sadly lacking, marked both by the strangeness of its setting and the familiarity of its emotion. Its only downturn is the out-of-nowhere gospel chorus ending. "The Wrestler", the album's most-publicized song (and not an original album track), gives us the best of Springsteen's heartfelt intentions. It's a soft, quiet tale of a broken man, and the only one on the album where the sense of struggle doesn't feel forced or out of place. "My only faith's in the broken bones and bruises I display," he sings, encapsulating the bulk of his body of work in just one line.
Working on a Dream is by no means a bad record; in many ways, it's what we have come to expect from Springsteen's current incarnation. It is the product of a songwriter who is no longer just struggling with the disconnect between his character's struggles and his own fame. He's also a man facing the natural decline of his career in the time of the collapse of the industry that made him famous in the first place. Bound not only to contractual obligations, but to those of a collective perception of what his success should mean, he has found himself amidst a mess of expectations. Critics still hold his records to the standards he set so early in his career, while the battle against declining sales numbers is being fought with Walmart exclusive deals and Superbowl appearances, mirroring similar efforts by other top-tier veteran acts. There's a very real sense in which Springsteen isn't allowed to age into one of the folk heroes he cherishes. His albums have to serve as vehicles for his massive touring franchise, and that requires a level of public attention that requires immensive (and inventive) effort all on its own.
All of these conflicting factors have gone into the making of Working on a Dream, so it's no surprise that the album never reaches a certain depth and seems at times like a confused version of Springsteen's past work. The simple truth is that at base, he is a man with little to complain about. Springsteen's life has treated him well, and the end result may be that his songs just don't sound as good when he hasn't got a demon chasing him. Still, one has to look at the pressures that surround him as a unique public figure and wonder: out of these creative and professional stresses, will some new demons finally emerge?