When Bruce Springsteen burst onto the scene in the early ’70s, he was supposed to be the new Dylan.
Dylan had run out of gas, having released some of the most uninspired music of his career. And here was Bruce: tough, thoroughly American, the underdog, the small-town heartthrob. He had very little to do with the ’60s. He was more the James Dean type. And he could really express himself. His songs careened with an explosive, streetwise energy. They were rough-edged but sensitive. He was a little guy with a big heart. And he had one of the great bands to back him up. The E-Street Band was funky; they were tight and free at the same time. They took all the great sounds, from soul and R&B and rock ’n’ roll, and made them into something original.
Over the years the E-street sound has developed from its featherweight beginnings, always dancing, always light on its feet, into a lumbering behemoth. There was once a kind of intimacy to the band. “Greetings from Asbury Park,” the first album, feels like a private postcard. There’s a spontaneity, an edge there. There’s tension. There’s massive ambition and talent. But it’s hard to keep the grit in your sound when you’re selling out a week of shows at Giants Stadium. Sure, everybody loves the Boss. But the truly immortal Bruce Springsteen is the little guy trying to make it big 35 years ago.
“Working on a Dream,” the Boss’s highly listenable new album, has many of the hallmarks of classic Springsteen. Thematically, there are the by-now-expected stories of requited and unrequited love, as well as blue-collar character sketches. The eight-minute opening track, “Outlaw Pete,” is a Wild West tale, the title character of which “was born a little baby on the Appalachian Trail / At six months old he’d done three months in jail.” There is also “The Wrestler,” an acoustic ballad written for the film of that title, an enjoyable piece of Asburyana. Other standouts include the title song, with its ringing Byrds guitars, and “My Lucky Day,” a hard-driving E-Street rocker complete with Clarence Clemons’ saxophone solo. Springsteen’s singing has become more melodic over the years. He’s less of a barroom rock singer now than he was in the ’80s; his voice sometimes has a burnished, quavering tone reminiscent of Roy Orbison. He’s aging gracefully.
Sonically, however, the overwrought, Spectoresque production of Springsteen’s recent work is still evident on “Working on a Dream.” The gauzy, atmospheric attempts to update the Band’s sound leave the sour tang of U2 on the tongue. Nor does the Band have much of the spunkiness or the sense of space it once had. It succeeds now, when it does, through sheer force.
In recent years, Springsteen has taken inspiration from the state of American society as he sees it. 2002’s “The Rising” was a meditation on the Sept. 11 attacks; 2007’s dark “Magic” seemed to lament the ravages of the Bush years. “Working on a Dream” owes its largely upbeat mood to the promise of the Obama presidency. It’s certainly the most cheerful music he’s released this decade. But it has little of the fresh, anarchic joy of his early records.