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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Bruce Springsteen, "Working on a Dream" (Columbia) [1.5 STARS]

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Much is being made of the relative speed with which the Boss is following up his last album with the E Street Band, released in September 2007. "During the last weeks of mixing 'Magic,' we recorded a song called 'What Love Can Do,'" Springsteen wrote in a message posted on his Web site late last year. "It was sort of a 'love in the time of Bush' meditation. It was a great track but felt more like a first song of a new record rather than something that would fit on 'Magic.' So our producer Brendan O'Brien said, 'Hey, let's make another one right now!'

"I thought, no, I haven't done that since my first two records came out in the same year. And usually I don't write that quickly. But that night I went back to my hotel in Atlanta and over the next week, I wrote several songs ('This Life,' 'My Lucky Day,' 'Life Itself,' along with 'Good Eye' and 'Tomorrow Never Knows') that formed the beginnings of our new album. Excited by the sounds we made on 'Magic,' I found there was more than enough fuel for the fire to keep going."

Ah, Bruce, you make it all sound so easy and old-school garage-rock, if not exactly fuel-efficient in these eco-conscious times. And maybe it really was that simple, though the marketing campaign that will usher "Working on a Dream" into record stores Tuesday following several weeks of carefully planned Internet leaks has been as sophisticated a "shock and awe" blitz as a dying major label can still muster, neatly incorporating the buzz behind "The Wrestler" (the track Bruce croaks over the closing credits to Mickey Rourke's comeback is tacked on as a bonus track), all of those appearances in support of then President-elect Obama (nice timing!) and of course the max-hype gig of all time, at half-time during the Super Bowl on Feb. 1.

Methinks the Boss and his handlers are trying to build a deterrence machine here with all this talk of a burst of inspiration, because two albums in 15 months is hardly moving at lightning speed for artists still in their prime, and because underneath all the warm, fuzzy optimism inherent in that list of song titles--and even more obvious in lyrics such as "You were life itself, rushing over me/Life itself, the wind in the black elms" (from "Life Itself") and "A bang, then stardust in your eyes/A billion years for just this night/In a way it will be alright" (from "This Life")--Springsteen's 16th proper studio album has a decidedly tossed-off, half-baked feel to it.

There isn't necessarily anything wrong with cutting loose, moving fast and having some fun in the studio: I'll take slap-dash Springsteen over the over-cooked and overwrought Boss of "The Rising" (2002) or the pretentiously conceptual Bruce of "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" (2006) any day. But after the quick sugary buzz these generally lighthearted and poppy tunes create on first impression, subsequent listens reveal less depth, boundary-stretching or originality than we've heard on any Springsteen disc since the solo nadirs of "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town," which, oddly enough, the artist isn't referencing in all that chatter about two albums in rapid succession. (Forget about "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J." and "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle," both issued in 1973; "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" were both released on the same day in 1992!)

How much one embraces the Hallmark-card sunshine of the new lyrics and the familiar though slightly toned-down bombast of that big Phil Spector-retro E Street sound on most of the titles cited here so far will depend on how nostalgic you are for the Bruce of yore; me, I'd rather sit through 24 hours of nonstop viewing of that annoying Viagra commercial with the retired Baby Boomers proving they can still rock out. In any event, that half of the disc is Bruce by numbers.
Where the album really flounders is on the other half, which includes monumentally failed experiments such as the endless epic "Outlaw Pete" (an annoyingly silly attempt to craft a musical myth akin to the Mighty Casey or Paul Bunyon); "Queen of the Supermarket" (which requires us to believe that this millionaire pop star has found his ideal woman hiding beneath a "company cap [that] covers her hair/Nothing can hide the beauty waiting there"); "This Life" (which attempts to answer what "Pet Sounds" might have sounded like with a sandpaper voice like Bruce's instead of the Beach Boys' angelic harmonies); "Good Eye" (wherein Springsteen tries to channel the White Stripes or the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion but merely sounds as if he's donned black face for a lousy blues track) and "Surprise, Surprise" (a vaguely '50s-flavored pop trifle so slight that it evokes the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus crooning a tune rejected from "Grease 3"--come on, now, everybody sing along: "Well surprise, surprise, surprise/Yeah surprise, surprise, surprise/Well surprise, surprise, come on open your eyes/And let your love shine down"!).

And I haven't even mentioned the jarring and completely nonsensical appearance of an African choir at the tail end of "The Last Carnival," or the fact that the Boss inexplicably left off his best recent track, the Halloween giveaway "A Night with the Jersey Devil" (a successful stab at garage-blues, as opposed to "Good Eye").

Ah, well: We all know that as with every Rolling Stones album released in the last 30 years, "Working on a Dream" essentially is just the prelude to the next Springsteen tour, which is where the money's really at. (The 2007-2008 "Magic" tour took in more than $230 million at the box office, according to Billboard.) And if you doubt that this album is merely just hype for the next jaunt through America's enormodomes, let's just count how many of these new songs the Boss plays at the Super Bowl.

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Haven't heard this one of yet, Jim, but over the years, I've noticed that you really tend to be a little hard on Bruce. I mean, seriously, aside from Tweedle Dumber on the sax, about whom you've always been right (I mean, damn is that guy irritating), you really miss a few things from Springsteen's work. To be fair, the guy is incredibly overrated (not so much as, say, the Doors, obviously; but certainly he isn't worthy of being placed next to, say, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd), yet he has done his share of great stuff, too.

Sure, it's kitschy faux-Americana, but you like Meat Loaf, right? Well, if that's the case, how can you like "You Took The Words Right Out of My Mouth" but not "Born to Run" or "Thunder Road?" They're practically the same arrangement, same themes, same obsession with some kind of fake American rock 'n' roll sound that probably never existed in the first place... And let's not forget, Springsteen is a MUCH better live performer than Meat Loaf (at least, in my opinion).

Not everything the Boss has done has been all that good, mind you, and I wouldn't defend it as such. The Rising was vastly overrated, Born in the U.S.A. is downright awful, and after he put out that clunker, he wouldn't do another fully great record 'til Devils & Dust a few years ago. But you're going to dismiss everything he's done, right? Even Darkness on the Edge of Town, which I think is far and away his best?

I mean, dude, I understand being bitter about coming from Jersey, especially when the rest of your homeland's musical contributions amount to Bon Jovi, Sinatra, Whitney Houston, and the Jonas Brothers, but aside from Yo La Tengo, Springsteen is probably one of the most inoffensive contributions to your home's cultural legacy. Embrace it, man!

Fair enough, Jim. I mean, I feel the same way about both the last two Coldplay records, to which you've given pretty good reviews, so...

Mention Coldplay in the same discussion as bruce? That's just plain wrong. Anyhow I’ve been a pretty big Bruce fan for years. In the old days his albums were truly albums thematically and musically bound together and it worked very well, Including BITUSA. The songs sounded out of place in any other setting, though BITUSA songs can fit in many places. It’s why his first greatest hits package was unlistenable for me. But since Tunnel of Love his E-Street work has tended more toward collections of songs, more like traditional albums where there are a few good songs a few fair songs and a few clunkers. The songs no longer need the album setting with the songs before and after them. The Rising is the closest he has come to the old days. Unlike you fella’s I like the rising. His solo work is thoroughly uneven and mainly hard to take, baring the isolated song here and there. I dare say though all his work is really solo work ala’ Neil young, just different musicians in different settings. Jim I have the feeling that regardless of what he put out you would not like it, so the opinion has to be discounted just as much as the opinion of someone who is a diehard fan.

Wow ! what a don't like the new Bruce cd...Who would have ever guessed ?...You are like a Red Sox fan reviewing the Yankees..what's the actually get paid for this nonsense ?

Okay, Mark, maybe talking about Coldplay in the same breath as Springsteen isn't quite fair (though I'd argue that Coldplay's second record is better than any full record Springsteen has done since the clunker-that-shall-not-be-named -- but yes, I get your drift).

However, putting Springsteen anywhere near Neil Young is downright insanity. Or, as Jules said in Pulp Fiction, it "ain't the same ballpark, ain't the same league, ain't even the same f***in' sport!"

Blah blah blah I don't like Springsteen his songs are too heavy his songs are too light he takes himself too seriously his concerts are boring I only like Wilco and Kanye West and The Flaming Lips and I don't care how good or bad a particular springsteen song is I am programmed not to like it and clarence clemons should retire from humanity and even though it would only take a couple of seconds of rational thought to understand why he chose to add the choir bit at the end of the Last Carnival I choose to make light of it and mislabel it as an African choir because I can blah blah blah

Queen of The Supermarket is one of the worst songs Bruce has ever recorded.

There, I said it. I feel better.

Your negative reviews of everything Springsteen are as worthless as the everything Springsteen does is a master piece found in publications like Rolling Stone. Sad.

Jim, I listened to the album on NPR and don't like it either. But your review is just terrible. You come across as a grumpy old man and a hack of a writer. I think you should check out Greg Kot's review for a sensible, well written review of an album. Hopefully this is just your blog and won't be in print as it would tarnish the credibility of the Sun-Times.

Rob P &'re completely correct in what you write.

You got it right. Bruce & the E Street Band have not put out a good or rockin' studio album since the 80's. Few of his "solo" albums rock either. HUMAN TOUCH contained some rockers; some were good songs (GLORIA'S EYES) and some were good riffs but incomplete songs, 57 CHANNELS (AND NOTHIN' ON). Maybe like Bonnie Raitt, Springsteen can't create many good new songs when happy & sober.

I find this review by Jim DeRogatison to be one of the more ridiculous I've ever read. I think the new Springsteen album is among his best. It's not the deepest fare Springsteen has offered up, but it's not meant to be. The music is infectious and very hard not to fall in love with if you give it a chance. Many on some of the Springsteen boards who initially were critical of the new album have now come around to love it, or something close to that. This is an album that rewards repeated listens. So don't let this sourpuss of a reviewer sour you on the album. Give it a chance. And most of you will be thankful you did.

Good Eye alone is worth the price. On a few listens, this album is extension of Magic, but the time and torch had been handed from Bush to Obama. It's more optimistic, but there's a lot of stuff on here that has a somewhat sinister tone (i.e., Good Eye, and there's something wrong with the guy in the Supermarket). DeRogatis has never been a fan of Sprinngsteen, so it's difficult to take this review seriously or with any applied credibility (he didn't like Magic either which was roundly hailed).

One last thin. Absolutely laughing about the comment about Neil Young being out of Springsteen's league. Keep up the delusion. Someday, if you keep screaming it loud enough Brendan, maybe someone besides yourself will actually agree.

Good Eye alone is worth the price. On a few listens, this album is a lusher, lighter, extension of Magic, but the time and torch had been handed from Bush to Obama. It's more optimistic, but there's a lot of stuff on here that has a somewhat sinister tone (i.e., Good Eye, and there's something wrong with the guy in the Supermarket). DeRogatis has never been a fan of Springsteen, so it's difficult to take this review seriously or with any applied credibility (he didn't like Magic either which was roundly hailed). I would agree the lyrics may not be A-grade Springsteen.

One last thin. Absolutely laughing about the comment about Neil Young being out of Springsteen's league. Keep up the delusion. Someday, if you keep screaming it loud enough Brendan, maybe someone besides yourself will actually agree.

I've heard you on your radio show and read your reviews of Springsteen and I gotta ask: Why do you bother? Bruce annoys you. Leave it be and move on. I suspect from reading and listening to you that you would not give Bruce a fair listen, no matter what. So why bother? Are you forced to by an evil sadistic editor? Complain to HR then.

Wow... what a shocker; you don't like Bruce's new album. I went to the NPR site and listened to the new tracks; my thoughts are similar to how I absorbed the other albums. Rolling Stone calls it a "masterpiece"; I think they're either on the payroll and drinking the Kool Aid or closet fanatics. The problem is that, well... as overly effusive in THEIR praise as RS is, you're just as extreme.

Why do you hate him so? lol. He is what he is - a good songwriter who usually backs it up with great lyrics, but not always. I think he's just... getting older; he doesn't care about taking the time between albums, but then... should we? If we like his music (and I do not think that you do, Jim), we should realize that he's old and isn't going to have a lot of "albums". Personally... as much as I appreciate the "concept album" in "Born to Run" and the poetry, I've always had a sweet spot for "Janey Don't You Lose Heart" and all of the other "throwaway" B-Side's that ended UP on "Tracks".

The new album, minus "The Last Carnival" (one of the best songs he has written in years) and "The Wrestler" seem like tracks that would have been "unreleased" gems years ago - like "The Promise". What's wrong with that? I listen to "This Life" and hear Brian Wilson. The much-maligned "Queen of the Supermarket"? I like it; I do. Sorry.

He isn't going to write "Born to Run, Part 2", folks. Get over it. I respect those who don't like Bruce and never have, but if you ever liked him... ask yourself this question: "would I rather he hold off and wait until the songs are fully realized or... do I just want to hear those gems ... even if it's only one or two tracks?"

My first reaction in hearing the new album... I didn't like it. I LOVED "The Last Carnival" and "The Wrestler", but... you know... I didn't really like "Magic" or "The Rising", either. For my money, this last great album was "Devils and Dust". I've been listening to this album, though, and... I love it. I don't like ALL the tracks, but I love most of them. My favorites? "The Last Carnival", "The Wrestler", "This Life", "Queen of the Supermarket" and ... "Kingdom of Days". "Surprise, Surprise" is ok, but... these, folks, are the gems that he never used to release and we hated that, remember?

Just enjoy what he puts out - even if you only love one or two songs.

As for you, Jim... why even review Bruce if you don't like him? You seem a bit biased.

"I've just got zero tolerance..."

Why do I care about your level of tolerance? Why do I, the reader of criticism of new music, care what or what you are not "tolerant" of?

Queen of the Supermarket is the type of song you praise from all the other junk bands you adore. Only it's infinitely better and will in time be something of a gem on radio and in the Springsteen repatoire. As for you Sir, as Bruce once sang....

I can't staaand myself...

Rather than waste energy on you, I'll just repost my response to your pal, John Ruskin, in his Tribune "review":


The same word choice of your hip hoppin' buddy whose favorite music tells us..well I don't know exactly what it tells us...he does love timeless stuff though! Stuff (appropriate term) that will be listened to and remembered decade after decade.

Stop trying to mesh with your buddy...I know you guys are getting national now, but paalease, don't copy his word (that he likely spent nights thinking up how he was going to criticize Springsteen again). I wish he would just admit he lacks the Jersey cool of his state-mate. And he wants to take it out on him till he dies, notwithstanding all the cultural greatness that we were the benificiary of.

Instead he uses "hokum" to TOTALLY and embarrassingly MISREAD "Long Walk Home" (Sound Opinion archives, review of Magic).

Such a pity you use it now to hastily judge a great new song.
But perhaps you want to make Jimmy like you some more?? He'll smile and laugh when he reads that right?! Haha haha hokum, yea that's what it is...

Beavis and Butthead music "critics". Great analysis.

And how is it that Magic, which about 15 months ago you pronounced in a WGN radio interview as "his best since Born In The USA" is now only 2 stars? You couldn't fully recognize the beauty of Devils & Dust (Remember? You thought the record was "prettified" by O'Brian...huh? This sparse set?) until after the great all of a sudden it's ranked by you as a three star--which your buddy actually (and remarkably) gave it at the time--perhaps to suck up to YOU?

Magic is a viscerally powerful political album--please restore it to its rightful place. Only then can we begin to comprehend the merits of its sonic twin, Working On A Dream. I'm not sure when or where you knocked it off.

The album came out of left field but was also seen coming..Bruce and the band's response to the Rove/Cheney/Bush duplicity the heartland voted into office again (by the way, 'heartland': the most misapplied/abused Springsteen critic label, save for phrase 'the boss'--which Jimmy always likes to write, as well as exercising his affinity for quoting from the boss' web site to begin his drivel of a "review").

ANOTHER THING: Why don't you and your buddy recognize that Springsteen was the ONLY one who initially spoke out, articulated, and made sustained art in response to 9/11 and the Iraq War--you both were complaining that no one in rock was doing that at the time.

How fitting that the artist who would finally stand out on a political limb and take the bull by the horns was going to be Springsteen--a national frickin treasure. Oh wait, I meant your pal--he's our national treasure, and you are both the John Ruskin's and Clement Greenberg's of our age..

He's on a run, Greg. It's been going on since he debuted "41 Shots".

When are you guys going to plead to your editor's that you simply cannot review Springsteen albums right after release--in fact before release, in this case. It is simply impossible to be writing critical reviews of this artist so quickly. Unless of course you want to pump out trite, which you accuse Working On A Dream to be.
I'm looking forward to popping Dream into my car's cd player, turning the volume up, and having a nice 'ol drive...

Yea you are right Brendan.

Neil Young is a far better songwriter (not even in the same sport).

Neil Young is a far better singer (not even in the same sport).

Neil Young is a far better guitarist (not even in the same sport).

Neil Young is a far better harmonica player (not even in the same sport).

Neil Young is a far better pianist (not even in the same sport).

Neil Young is, finally, a far better live performer (not even in the same sport).

In fact, Brendan, all of the above is absurd and you know it.

You're awful picky for a guy who likes Fall Out Boy.


Brendan I think you might have misunderstood me. I love Neil Young, and have been listening to him far longer than I have listened to Bruce. My only point of comparison was to note that every Bruce album is essentially a solo album he just uses different musiicans and has complete control regardless of who plays. Neil is in the same boat. Crazy Horse, Stray Gators...dare I say it...the shocking pinks etc...regardless of who Neil uses as his band it is still a neil record with him in control just like Bruce. That's it. No comparisons of the music.

Hi Jim,

One and a half stars for Bruce? You're just trying to be controversial. The album is fantastic. Your rating is moronic and you know it. Your review is also thoroughly obnoxious. I would love to see you write or even conceive of a musical grandeur as great as that created by Springsteen.



I listen to Sound OPinions on WFUV in the NYC area, and, as a result, have started reading your reviews online. I've been reading the comments to your Springsteen review with amusement.

Trying to review Springsteen is a lot like trying to review a religion - the true believers, the atheists and the agnostics are all going to want to stone you, whatever you say.

I've done all the stupid Springsteen things:

- traveling hither and yon to see him across the land
- groveling to get an advance copy of the cd last Friday night
- trying to angle for tickets to a rumored smaller concert at Beacon Theatre in NYC in Feb.

But, I happen to agree with your review. You nailed everything that I thought (or that I sensed, but couldn't articulate) when I had listened to the album twice by Saturday morning.

I agree with you not because I am stuck in 1980, waiting for him to write and record "The River II". Instead, because, in light of his overall body of work, you'd expect and hope for something more than an hyper-produced genre-skipping album. What's more, you'd certainly hope that he wouldn't embarass himself with a rambling wreck of an opening track like "Outlaw Pete," with its obvious ripoff from Kiss (!). And the marketing onslaught? Ugh.

In short, I may not agree with all of your reviews. And, I have no idea whether you are either grumpy or historically biased against Springsteen (as some of the commenters suggest). But, you nailed it.

Now, if I can only find some tix to Springsteen live this Spring (because, other than a concert by Marah [re-formed and touring this February - you **need** to promote them!] or the Dropkick Murphys of 5 years ago, Springsteen is still the next best cure to what ails you).



I have listened to the new Springsteen album and agree it's not a masterpiece but 1-1/2 stars? I think you've given Britney Spears albums better reviews. I've listened to the new album a few times and it has grown on me. In all fairness, I am a Springsteen loyalist. I wish he would however end his relationship with Brenden O'Brien and give Rick Rubin or Daniel Lanois a shot. My one wish is for Bruce to come out and say he didn't write the lyrics or music for Working on a Dream. And that it was written by the great Wayne Coyne. I have a feeling you would add a few stars. I think Springsteen's next project should be Christmas in New Jersey.

Take Care,

Pat Casey

Hey, there's a big surprise! Dim Derogate-us (especially Springsteen fans) of the Dumb-Times gave the new Springsteen album a very negative review. Jim, it's not Bruce's fault that the kids at your New Jersey high school who beat you up, rejected you, and pushed your fat head into a toilet were Springsteen fans; the problem was your annoying and self-righteous personality, which has only gotten worse. Now, it might be true that Bruce's new album is not as good as Darkness On the Edge of Town from 31 years ago, but can you name anyone in Bruce's genre, aside from Neil Young and Bob Dylan, who is capable of making music this good at the age of 59? Jim, you really should consider scheduling a session or two with a cognitive-behavioral therapist who can help you remove your head from your ass. Let's do ourselves a favor and critique the critic for a change: he's an embittered and failed musician, with one tenth of the talent of Max Weinberg on drums, who had no other choice but to become a cynical and jaded rock critic with one tenth of the talent of Lester Bangs...and Jon Landau (at least he got it right once in his career). Have a nice day.
Dr. Paul Haider, Chicago

Man, are most Springsteen fans idiots. Good review, Mr. DeRogatis. Signed, a guy who owns every Springsteen album--including this lousy new one.

I'd like to add one more comment to this debate. Bruce Springsteen's manager, Jon Landau, used to be a rock critic for Rolling Stone magazine; Jim Derogatis was fired from Rolling Stone in 1996. Jon Landau eventually became Bruce's producer, but as a rock critic in 1974 he once wrote,"I saw rock and roll's future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen." Dim Derogate-us of the Dumb-Times is a bigger fan of Meatloaf than he is of Bruce Springsteen (I'm not kidding about this fact!). So, Bruce will be performing another sold-out concert at the United Center (the previous sold-out concert was on May 12) on September 20 (three days before Bruce's 60th birthday). Where will Meatloaf be performing on September 20th? I'm just curious. Paul Haider, Chicago
P.S. Working On a Dream is not Bruce's best album by far, but one and a half stars is something that a legitimate and respectable rock critic gives to a new album by Meatloaf, not Bruce Springsteen.

I'm so glad that Derogate-us no longer works or writes for the Sun-Times. What will I do without my nemesis? Well, there is still Dick Cheney for me to despise on a daily basis. However, I never had a chance to say anything to "Derogate-us Springsteen fans" before he left the Sun-Times building for good. Jim, don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way, and if it did, well, it's time for you to lose weight. Please don't come back at any point in the future as Thomas Conner has your old job covered, and he won't be giving it back to you. We wish you well at Columbia College; I'm sorry that it isn't Columbia University instead.
Paul Haider, Chicago
P.S. Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuce!!! E Street Band forever!!!

If there is a bed that is big enough for the two of them, Jim D. and Brendan D. should get a room together where they can bash Bruce while listening to Pink Floyd; they would not be rocking out much, as this is impossible to do when listening to mid-tempo stoner slop, but I'm sure that they would be able to ponder who is more pretentious. By the way, it is a tragedy that Clarence Clemons died of a stroke while Dero has not had even a mild heart attack yet. At least the Sun-Times and Rolling Stone magazine had the good sense to terminate Jimbo's contract for his lousy journalism; Derogate-us will never be in the same league as the great Greg Kot.
Paul Haider, Chicago

How ' bout you both are dorks?

"I've just hot zero tolerance..". Lol. Who the $))7?! cares about your level of tolerance? Review the music on its own terms, not your personal tastes and axe to grind.

This record is really a flip side of Magic--it's eminently listenable, and contains many great moments, as all Springsteen recordings do.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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