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.