Bruce by Numbers

It's his moment, but Springsteen retreads his tired comfort zones on new album


Working on a Dream, Bruce Springsteen’s second release of new studio material in the rare short span of 18 months (following 2007’s rousing Magic), is a piece that breathes specifically in its own cultural moment. The great American roots-rock populist has as much stake in America’s new era of hope as any rock star, having advocated progressive causes and candidates for three decades, including debuting the thrilling, uplifting title track from this new album at Obama campaign stops in Ohio days before last November’s election.

Working on a Dream isn’t a political celebration at all, but it does find the Boss enjoying additional victories. He’s already won a Golden Globe award for his new track “The Wrestler” (heard in the acclaimed film), finally has songs available in the popular Guitar Hero video game series (the new single “My Lucky Day” and his classic “Born to Run”), and he’ll no doubt rock some of these new songs when he headlines the hugest gig in America at Super Bowl XLIII this Sunday.


All this cultural relevance belies a new album that’s less about Springsteen creating a special moment than about his confirmed presence in a collective moment that suits his classic instincts. When Americans want to believe again, he assures us that there’s nobility and comfort in knowing that we’re all working on it. If the bold retro shine of Magic found him wrestling with doubt and faith, then the booming, uneven simplicity of Working on a Dream finds him accepting the possibility that we may be OK. Much of this incomplete wisdom is just Bruce-by-numbers; opening track “Outlaw Pete” recalls his early extended character-based storytelling, while “This Life” sounds like a worthy outtake from the busy, melodic ’60s-style pop-rock sessions of Magic. “Good Eye” is stomping, slurry hard blues, while the sweetly resigned mid-tempo rocker “Kingdom of Days” offers the aged grace and beauty that will make it a meaningful favorite of Boss fans for years to come.

For the most part, today’s Boss sounds mature and convincing. But on one real clunker, the nearly condescending “Queen of the Supermarket,” Springsteen awkwardly milks his stock working-class metaphors with an assumption of guaranteed real-world credibility. In America’s new era of hope, real people may need more than well-tested sentiments from popular icons. Working on a Dream is Springsteen’s tired comfort zone, but more importantly, it’s his momentary acknowledgement that in our collective desire to move forward, the campaign still continues.

Sonoma County Library