“I’ll put The Rising, Magic, and the new one against any other three records we’ve made in a row, as far as sound, depth, and purpose," Bruce Springsteen tells David Fricke in this month’s Rolling Stone, the man’s 14th cover story. Despite the qualifications, the quote is an eyebrow-raiser, blocked out for effect. But it’s not ridiculous. Unlike pretty much every other member of the sainted rock fraternity, when Bruce puts out an album, it’s still potential fodder for the canon.
And that’s for a bevy of very good reasons: his latter-day consistency, if not brilliance; his impossibly manic three-hour-plus live sets; his deathless growl. Most important, though, it’s because the Springsteen milieu — a sweeping embrace of fundamentally American characters, from the highest to the lowest, the most personal to the most public — has always been perfectly engineered for aging. The man’s been nostalgic and sentimental on record since his early 20s; now, at 60, he’s technically better suited than ever to be so.
Only this time, he’s not looking backward. A lot of recent cultural product has felt Obama-branded, but, for better or for worse, Working on a Dream especially so: The title track premiered at an Obama rally in Cleveland, one of many Bruce played (he also popped up at Obama’s "We Are One" concert) and the album was officially announced the day after Obama’s win and released exactly a week after his inauguration. Bruce seems to have very purposefully piggybacked on the Obama tide to unleash the new stuff.
And, appropriately, a good dollop of that Obama-brand hope is found in the blueprint of this album. Which is to say, an irrational, bland optimism: From the plainly joyful "My Lucky Day," "Tomorrow Never Knows," and "Surprise, Surprise" to the title track, the album’s most explicit embodiment of the new-found pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American spirit, Bruce is plum pleased. The technical proficiency is masterful; the songs soar when Bruce wants them to, or chug, or skip. But nothing carries much of a wallop; nothing cuts too deep.
Craig Finn, speaking to Spin about 2007’s Magic, said this of that album’s arguable highpoint, "Girls in Their Summer Clothes": "You feel like you’ve heard him sing that before, but you haven’t. And right when he hits the chorus, you’re like, ‘Fuck, yeah!’" Undoubtedly, the "fuck, yeah" moments are still there — the shrugging upswing on "My Lucky Day," for one. But, well Craig, yeah, for the most, we have heard this before. When the proudly worn tropes — the irascible low-life characters, the working-class heroes — show up to break up the life-affirming stuff on Dream, they’re an afterthought (the jokey “Outlaw Pete”) or worse (heretofore never to be mentiond again "Queen of the Supermarket" is, well, really fucking terrible).
That’s why the finest moment of the album is "The Wrestler." It’s a lamentation on failure and an acknowledged artifice — the song was written for the movie of the same name after a special request from the film’s resurgent star, Mickey Rourke, and tacked on here as a bonus track. It’s delivered from the gut in straight shot Bruce style: he’s "one legged man," a "one trick pony," a "scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and weeds." Unlike the hope-stuff, which feels temporary, or the storytelling stuff, which fails, it finally really is, in traditional Bruce style, a universal sentiment writ small. And it is gut-wrenching.
There’s another little moment nearly as seemingly true: On the bridge of "Kingdom of Days," Bruce lets fly a string of impassioned "I love you, I love you, I love you"s, only to hear back, incredulously, a few whispered "then prove it, then prove it, then prove it"s. He isn’t explicit about the rest, although we do know it works out: Bruce and his girl end up under the covers, counting the "wrinkles and the grays." It’s a lovely little image of a timeless couple in repose. Once, he wasn’t interested in counting anything; he was ready, without any whispered provocation, to "Prove It All Night." He’s mellowed. He’s aged. Yes, as far as these things go, quite finely.