An artist friend who is not a fan recently summed up the essence of the Bruce Springsteen phenomenon. Let me paraphrase what she said without looking up from her knitting: He became famous by singing songs about his own life. His success changed his life drastically. He has been able to adapt his music in such a way that people who were attracted to his early records still find meaning in the work.
A so-called review of a new Bruce Springsteen record, weeks after its release, is probably a silly thing. Odds are good that you never intend to own it or that you pre-ordered it in November and already have it memorized. Regardless, Working on a Dream is worth mentioning for a few reasons. Heard from the next room, Dream sounds like the closest thing he’s ever made to a mainstream pop record. Listened to closely, it contains a pretty straightforward list of Springsteen’s pet sounds not his own, from female back-up vocals reminiscent of Roy Orbison’s 1960s records to Byrds-like keys and chiming guitars. One song, “Queen of the Supermarket,” is difficult not to read as an homage to Allen Ginsberg, who will always own the grocery store as a place to find love and poetry and—sure, why not?—queens. “Surprise, Surprise” is that close to Lennon and McCartney circa 1966.
The dude’s 59. There was an uncomfortable awkwardness to the contortions and rock show histrionics of his Super Bowl halftime stunt. If the camera has to cut away while you recover from a backbend, why do it? One of Working on a Dream’s strengths is that, overall, it makes assets of Springsteen’s age and experience. The skinny, barefoot E Street shuffler who came of age on the radio could not have written “Life Itself” or “The Wrestler.” The punk who warned “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” would not have been able to muster the restraint to deliver this music in any meaningful way. Be glad that Bruce has a personal trainer; it’s hard to imagine him doing his Mitch Ryder medley without all that health club torque around his tiny torso. At the same time, he seems relieved to let all that rest while—in comparison—he practically whispers the best lines on the record. (The deluxe version of the disc comes with a “making of” DVD. The most humble and human moment is when Bruce tells an engineer, “I can probably hit that G with some adrenaline.”)
Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. presented Springsteen as raconteur; Darkness on the Edge of Town as bad attitude; Born to Run as the man arrived. The River, all four sides of it, was somehow able to contain both the American dream and the American nightmare. The Ghost of Tom Joad is likely to endure as his most significant recording, and Nebraska as the greater tribute to Steinbeck. Magic volunteered the man as a grim political epoch’s teller of cautionary tales. Working on a Dream introduces you, perhaps, to the first rock superstar willing to admit—rather than boast—that he’s content.