Bruce Springsteen, "Working on a Dream" (Columbia)
In his 60th year, the Boss seems to be the hardest-working AARP man in show business: Gigs at the Obama celebration and Super Bowl, a European (and presumably U.S.) tour and now this, his fifth studio album in seven years. He used to spend years laboring over albums, but not this time: It's been a mere 15 months since "Magic."
He should have worked more on "Dream."
This unsatisfying album feels both overproduced and underdeveloped. At times, producer Brendan O'Brien overdoes it, smothering with strings, eschewing electric guitar and muting most of the E Street Band. As for the lyrics, some are unbelievably banal, others devoid of depth and messages. If you expected Springsteen to bring a batch of optimistic anthems for the Obama era, you won't find them here. Other than a line or two, there is nothing overtly political; mostly it's reflections about mortality, fidelity, life and love.
Musically, this album echoes the Boss' roots -- Phil Spector, boardwalk pop 'n' soul, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the blues and Hank Williams. In other words, this is probably the most blatantly pop-sounding album Springsteen has ever made.
"Dream" starts with the string-driven western tale "Outlaw Pete," an overlong epic that feels more like an 8-minute Clint Eastwood movie treatment than a Springsteen song. The title track (and current single) hardly sounds heroic or even determined. "Queen of the Supermarket" comes across like either a country spoof or a sequel to "Girls in Their Summer Clothes."
The first compelling number is the seventh song, "Good Eye," a jarring, twisted electronic blues, reminiscent of the way the Boss delivered "Reason to Believe" on the Devils and Dust Tour. The ensuing "Tomorrow Never Knows," a sweet country stroll, gets vaguely philosophical, nicely setting up the album's two gems, the closing acoustic ballads. "The Last Carnival" is an elegantly understated, heartfelt goodbye to a fellow circus performer, the late E Street organist Danny Federici. And "The Wrestler" is a classic, deeply etched Springsteen character portrait, written for the Mickey Rourke movie.
At a time when we thought Springsteen might take us to the promised land, he instead has taken us to radio nowhere. Is there anybody alive out there?
JON BREAM, STAR TRIBUNE