“Bruce Springsteen has a dream. He has a dream that one day, this rock-and-roll nation will rise up and live like it’s 1965/1966 all over again. He has a dream that our pop stars will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the RIAA-certified colors of their gold and platinum albums, but by how well they appropriate the spectral mid-‘60s sounds of the Beach Boys, Byrds, Beatles, Roy Orbison, Phil Spector and even Ennio Morricone” (du Lac).
“That’s the prevailing musical message of Springsteen and the E Street Band’s surprising new album, Working on a Dream” (du Lac). “It is the fourth collaboration between Springsteen and Brendan O’Brien, who produced and mixed the album” (Amazon.com). “Working was hatched before Magic was launched. While mixing the latter, Springsteen recorded What Love Can Do, which he deemed more appropriate for a new path than a last-minute Magic addition. It sparked an atypical songwriting frenzy that yielded five Working tracks in a week. The E Street Band did much of the recording during tour breaks. The album contains the last studio contributions by keyboardist Danny Federici, who died of melanoma last April” (Gundersen).
The end result is an album ““unlike any of the previous 15 studio sets in Springsteen’s remarkably rich catalogue, inasmuch as it’s the Jersey boy’s first album in which style clearly trumps substance” (du Lac). “What’s good for our heroes isn’t always good for us. Dylan found God and lost the lyrical plot. Prince scrubbed ‘slave’ from his face and followed his purple muse down the rabbit hole. Bruce Springsteen? At 59, after 35 years of grappling with the dark side of the American Dream, Jersey’s favorite son” (Spin) and “one of the finest American songwriters of his generation” (Amazon.com), “sounds relatively content – a far cry from his state of mind 16 months ago, when the bitter and oft-bleak E Street album Magic was released. Then, Springsteen was downright disturbed by the realities of this American life under the watch of George W. Bush” (du Lac). Now he “has reached a promised land of sorts – he’s got his man in the White House, happiness at home, and a gig headlining the Super Bowl. Does it get any better than that? If we’re talking Working on a Dream, the answer, unfortunately, is yes” (Spin).
“Springsteen is forever striving to blend profound lyrics with bracing rock-and-roll or folk, depending on his musical mood. But Working on a Dream is full of lyrical missteps and half-realized ideas” (du Lac). His “street poetry falls short of earlier majestic peaks, robbing splendor from sonic gem[s]” (Gundersen). “Mostly upbeat and major key, Springsteen’s fifth studio album in six years plays like the sunlit counterpart to…Magic” (Spin). “The album doesn’t go nearly as deep as you’d expect from one of rock’s preeminent poets; Springsteen’s lyrics tend to be overshadowed by the album’s generally bright melodies and lush textures and sounds” (du Lac). “Bliss [just] isn’t the Boss’ bag. Without anything to push against, one of rock’s most eloquent lyricists is in the awkward position of having little of interest to say” (Spin).
Nowhere is the conflict between sound and words more obvious than on Queen of the Supermarket, “the lyrical nadir” (Spin) of the album, but also an example of how “the sonic sum [of the album] is frequently something to behold” (du Lac). This “marvelous, majestic song” (du Lac) kicks off as “a mid-tempo piano ballad, before adding everything from swelling strings and swirling Eastern-tinged guitar chords to stacked vocal harmonies and the rhythmic beep of an electronic cash register” (du Lac). Lyrically, it is “a widescreen melodrama about a cashier crush that for sheer overkill rivals Adam Sandler’s Broooce parody ‘Lunchlady Land’” (Spin). The song “finds Bruce Springsteen steering a grocery cart down aisle No. 2 as he plaintively confesses his secret crush on the checkout girl” (Gundersen). “Leave it to the Boss to try to romanticize the mega-mart shopping experience” (du Lac). “‘A dream awaits in aisle number two?’ Somebody get a mop” (Spin).
“The carefully crafted music…[is] continually undercut by clunky, banal lyrics” (Spin). “Surprise Surprise, for instance, is a devastatingly catchy power-pop song built around chiming, Byrdsian guitar chords and punched up with the sort of swirling keyboard line that might make Ray Manzarek beam with pride. It sounds like the best Traveling Wilburys song you’ve never heard, only with strings and, unfortunately, the sort of lyrics that Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, et al., might have laughed out of the room: ‘And when the sun comes out tomorrow, it’ll be the start of a brand new day/And all that you have wished for I know will come your way’” (du Lac).
“On the driving rocker My Lucky Day, over ringing guitars and piano fills, Springsteen plays with the old love-is-a-gamble motif, but can only come up with this couplet: ‘Well, I lost all the other bets I made/Honey, you’re my lucky day’” (du Lac).
Depending on the critic, The Last Carnival is either a “hokey [song that] proves for the umpteenth time that a song built on big-top metaphors is doomed to failure” (Spin) or “the standout that comes near album’s end” (du Lac). “Mortality looms over…[the] gloriously bittersweet tribute to the late E Street Band organist Danny Federici, who died in April from melanoma, it’s full of striking imagery and shot through with a haunting, echoing harmony vocal that sounds as if it’s coming from the great beyond. ‘Hanging from the trapeze/My wrists waiting for your wrists,’ Springsteen sings. ‘Two daredevils high upon the wall of death’” (du Lac).
This Life “features some of the best vocal harmonies this side of the Beach Boys and includes one of the album's most memorable lyrics: ‘I finger the hem of your dress/My universe at rest’” (du Lac).
“The whistling in the rocking title track, which could be an anthem for President Obama’s stimulus package, conveys cheery optimism at the prospect of honest hard labor, even as the lyrics recognize hardships ahead” (Gundersen).
That song and Life Itself both offer “classic pop- and folk-derived melodies [that] sound almost sacred when borne aloft by the E Street Band’s majestic thrust. Brendan O’Brien’s heavily layered yet clearly defined production further amps up the arena roar – his wall of sound is audible from outer space” (Spin).
“The album-opening Outlaw Pete is a thrilling eight-minute epic” (Spin), a “seriocomic folk tale” (Gundersen) with “a booming vocal, seesawing guitar line, and galloping strings. And don’t be surprised if you let out a "Big Man!" when Clarence Clemons rips a sax solo on My Lucky Day” (Spin), a song in which Springsteen is “celebrating love’s blessing” (Gundersen). “Elsewhere, touches of backwards guitar, distorted harmonica, and subtle vocal loops show that these ol’-time rock ‘n’ rollers aren’t afraid to experiment” (Spin).
“On Kingdom of Days, Springsteen ponders love and mortality and how romance can almost make time stand still, singing: ‘I don’t see the summer as it wanes/Just the subtle change of light upon your face.’ Lyrically, it’s one of the album’s more moving songs. But it’s also musically overwrought, with strings adding a thick coating of schmaltz and sending the whole thing smashing into the wall inside the tunnel of love” (du Lac).
“The Boss is at his very best on the album-closing, Golden Globe-winning…The Wrestler” (du Lac), which Springsteen wrote for Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film of the same name. Springsteen “sings of struggle and survival over strummy acoustic guitar with some tinkling piano and buried backing vocals, but no stacked harmonies, no strings and no stabs at soaring grandeur. I’'s a stark, simple character study, and the most emotionally gripping song on the album. Funny thing that: Springsteen shines when he’s trying to sound less like Brian Wilson, et al., and more like . . . Bruce Springsteen” (du Lac).
“As anyone who’s ever seen him in concert can attest, Bruce Springsteen doesn’t shy from hard work. But people work hardest when they’re hungry; and the man’s 12 new musically sturdy, lyrically iffy love songs and tall tales suggest that America’s most beloved rock icon sags when he’s satisfied. For the majority of people, that’s to be expected. For a hero like Springsteen, it’s a disappointment” (Erlewine).