There’s a certain point at which reviews of particular artists become irrelevant. There’s not necessarily a particular finite number of albums, or years in the business, or any other mathematically proven constant to which we can point. Yet, some artists transcend criticism once they enter legend status. There are very few living legends today, but they are certain to include Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Paul McCartney. Every single one of these artists has released terrible albums, for most career-killers, but as legends, their livelihoods Teflon-coated, negative reviews seem a minor interruption. No Dylan fan is going to skip a purchase of a new release based on a few negative reviews. It’s just not done. “The Boss” has arguably reached that magical legend status sometime in the past decade. Whether with his post-9/11 paean, The Rising or perhaps far earlier than we’d guess, with such classics as Born to Run or my personal favorite, Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen has become bigger than the game. And yet, despite it all, he keeps churning out quality album after quality album.
Based on his `legend’ status, one could argue that Bruce Springsteen had no need of promoting his new record. But, promote he did, on the biggest stage in America, the Super Bowl halftime show. Rumor has it that Springsteen had turned down the offer to play the Super Bowl on more than one occasion, but felt the timing was right in 2009. Partly buoyed by the incoming President-Elect after eight tough years of Bush, Springsteen had hope and expressed it in his music and his choices. Before and during the release of the album, Springsteen seemed to be everywhere. Aside from the Super Bowl, the Boss played the album’s title track at a rally stop on Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign. He had a song appear on the soundtrack for the critically acclaimed Darren Aronofsky / Mickey Rourke film, The Wrestler. The song, which won the Golden Globe, was somehow snubbed for the Oscars. Meanwhile, being busy with writing songs and playing for Barack, Springsteen’s camp somehow made a questionable decision in allowing a `greatest hits’ compilation to be a Wal-Mart exclusive. Never mind that the faceless chain tried to encapsulate a 36-year career in only 12 songs. The real offense was a tireless supporter of labor causes allowing a company, which has been caught numerous times mishandling worker’s rights and pay, to release an exclusive. While the Boss’ manager blew it off, Springsteen himself called it a mistake. And yet, through it all, Springsteen still remained bulletproof.
Working on a Dream debuted at a not-very-surprising number one on the Billboard charts, knocking off teen country superstar, Taylor Swift. Granted, selling albums these days isn’t what it used to be, but for a rocker who turns 60 this year, and still doesn’t look a day over 40, it’s still a feat. In the end, what Bruce ended up doing on this album could be considered irrelevant, but it turns out not to be so. The opening track alone, the epic eight-minute story song “Outlaw Pete,” takes cues from both Kiss and Springsteen worshippers, the Arcade Fire, in a continued effort to push the boundaries of the Boss’ Americana. (Though, Bruce sounds oddly more like Jakob Dylan than himself on this track.) “My Lucky Day” nearly picks up where “Pete” leaves off, with an incredibly similar guitar riff before heading into the sunny territory Springsteen fans haven’t seen for some time. It turns out, when you’re a liberal musician trying to make rock and roll during the most destructive and fiscally irresponsible administration in history, you tend not to write uplifting material. Hearing “My Lucky Day,” fans are sure to be as optimistic as they were upon hearing “Born to Run,” yet perhaps not as supercharged. The intro to “This Life” sounds as if Springsteen has been spending a lot of time listening to Brian Wilson, while “Tomorrow Never Knows” again sounds more like a Wallflowers’ tune than a Springsteen original, though the pedal steel works in his favor on this one.
The few critics who have been panning Working on a Dream have some salient points to make. It’s most likely true that a majority of the songs on the album won’t end up culled for another `greatest hits’ collection, Wal-Mart created or not. Heck, there are songs in the Boss’ oeuvre that have never appeared on a hits collection that are amongst the best in his career (“I’m on Fire,” anyone?). The best songs on the album bookend the inside filler. “Outlaw Pete,” “My Lucky Day,” “The Last Carnival” (a song written for fallen original E Street member Danny Federici) and “The Wrestler” (included as a bonus track) are Bruce and his band expanding on their strengths while the rest seem to be mere giddy rock and roll celebration of better things to come.
John Mellencamp- Freedom’s Road
Jakob Dylan- Seeing Things
Bruce Springsteen- Lucky Town