Barack Obama may have proven that anyone can be president of the United States, but who would have guess that a 59-year-old man could be the biggest musical act of 2009?
Consider the facts: on Jan. 11, Bruce Springsteen won a Golden Globe for best original song; on Jan. 18, he opened for Obama’s inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial; and this Sunday, he’s headlining the Superbowl halftime show. In the midst of all of this, he has released a greatest hits disc in addition to a brand new album called “Working on a Dream.”
The Boss hasn’t been this relevant since “Born to Run.”
And he may never have been more content. Unlike his two critically acclaimed post-9/11 albums, “Working on a Dream” finds Springsteen focusing less on political turmoil and more on lighter, personal stories of overcoming everyday struggles.
Through the barroom beat and sassy guitar licks of “What Love Can Do” — a song that Bruce has described as a contemplation on “love in the time of Bush” — Springsteen admits that he “can’t stop this train,” but offers up love as a solution.
Then there’s the album opener, “Outlaw Pete,” an eight-minute epic of the old-west propelled by ominous strings, harmonica and spaghetti-western electric guitar. Springsteen spits, drawls, and yelps through the tall tale of a renegade so hardboiled that, “at six-months old he’d spent three months in jail.”
The lyrics are delightfully absurd, but unfortunately some of the album’s lyrics are absurd in a less pleasant way: In “Queen of the Supermarket” Springsteen coos “A dream awaits in aisle number two,” then on “Tomorrow Never Knows” he rasps lazily “Where the green grass grows / tomorrow never knows.”
Unfortunately, the simple folk-rock arrangements of these and a handful of other tunes on “Working on a Dream” feel just as stale and contrived as the lyrics.
So when Springsteen unleashes his hound dog howl on the rumbling, vital “Good Eye” it’s a bluesy, breath of fresh air — and he doesn’t sound half his age either. The only problem is that “Good Eye” wouldn’t feel like such a stand out if the rest of the songs didn’t get lost in their own muddy, folksy layers of guitar, organ and horns.
Bruce Springsteen has long been seen as a champion of the working class and “Working on a Dream’s” homebrewed songs of guarded optimism capture the emotional pull of blue-collar America in 2009 perfectly. It’s just too bad that it sounds more like a work in progress than a dream come true.
Staff writer Nick Sheidies can be reached at email@example.com.