Just a decade ago, Bruce Springsteen seemed on the verge of ossifying, and becoming the kind of gassy elder statesman trotted out on Grammy night to espouse some musical ideal that his own work had long since abandoned. But from 2002's The Rising onward, Springsteen has been revitalized, recording in different styles while speaking to events in the real world and in his own life. His albums have been hit-and-miss, but they've been passionate, relevant, and defiantly alive.
Working On A Dream finds Springsteen working again with producer Brendan O'Brien, and taking the kind of chances they took with 2007's Magic, whether that means opening the album with the operatic eight-minute rocker "Outlaw Pete" or turning a silly ditty like "Queen Of The Supermarket" into a lushly orchestrated pop reverie. On The Rising and 2005's Devils & Dust, Springsteen often appeared at a loss for hooks, but Magic and Working both overflow with gorgeous, timeless melodies, delivered with a modern rock punch. Working On A Dream is arguably the best-sounding album Springsteen has made since Born To Run.
Just don't look too hard at the lyric sheet. As the album's prosaic title suggests, Working On A Dream is weighed down by lines—like "let me show you what love can do" and "let your love shine down"—that sound not just sappy, but completely disconnected from the kind of real people and places Springsteen used to evoke. Instead, he saves his most powerful words for the two closers, "The Last Carnival" and the bonus track "The Wrestler," which are spare, droning, and largely devoid of sonic kick. It's exciting that Springsteen is closing out the '00s the way he started them—shooting from the hip and striving to connect—but it's a little distressing that he's begun to separate his somber side from his light-hearted side. Does the 21st-century Boss not believe that pop music and rich storytelling can coexist? Can someone lend this dude a copy of The River?