The rush to praise Bruce Springsteen's new album (check out the critical soft-soap on Metacritic) is mystifying.
Truth is, 'Working On A Dream' is Springsteen on cruise control. An album leeched of passion.
The production is partly to blame. Springsteen's voice, a vigorous instrument, does not benefit from being swathed in saccharine strings and harmonies. A Spector-esque sweep of xylophones, saxophones and timpani, yes. But not Brendan O'Brien's sickly-sweet, elevator-music whitewash.
The songs are weak too. 'Queen Of The Supermarket' aims for the vibrato-driven drama of Roy Orbison and ends up sounding like '90s Meat Loaf. Meanwhile, 'Surprise Surprise', a vaporous ditty that borrows the chorus from 'Cum On Feel The Noize', is quite astoundingly lame.
Springsteen hasn't been this bland and listless since 1992's 'Human Touch'. And, as with that album, the problem is that Springsteen just sounds too damn happy, too settled. All Boss fans know that he's at his most compelling when he's exploring futility and blankness - when the 'open road' of Springsteen myth becomes a terrifying acceleration into the abyss.
Here, then, are Springsteen's most majestically miserable moments.
This out-take from the 'Darkness On The Edge Of Town' sessions is the desolate counterpoint to the big-country exhilaration of 'Thunder Road'. A down-on-his-luck gambler, sleeping in the back seat of a borrowed car, notes bitterly: "When the truth is spoken and it don't make no difference/Something in your heart runs cold".
Reason To Believe
Often described as a 'redemptive' conclusion to 'Nebraska', despite the fact that it's patently one of Springsteen's bleakest songs. The opening image of a man forlornly poking his dead pet dog with a stick sets the tone. The point is, there is no reason to believe.
The tale of a regular Joe who idly sleeps with a prostitute, then experiences an existential crisis. Realising he's utterly imprisoned in his small-town existence, he sits motionless at traffic lights all night, gazing up at the "Stars burning in that black void". 'Hungry Heart' it ain't.
Wreck On The Highway
The last track on 'The River' is a companion piece to 'Stolen Car' in the sense that the highway-at-night becomes a spiritual dead-zone rather than the site of thrilling possibility. A witness to a fatal car-crash ("there was blood and glass all over") goes home to his wife but is unable to sleep; he just lies there, contemplating the horror.
From the sorely underrated 'The Ghost Of Tom Joad', another car crash, this one ending with a sparsely poetic first-person death: "The wind come silent through the windshield/All I could see was snow and sky and pine/I closed my eyes and I was runnin'/
Yea, I was runnin', then I was flyin'…" Surprisingly, there was no room for a wailing Clarence Clemons sax solo.