Monday, February 2, 2009

Bruce Stinksteen!

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes--"Trapped Again" (mp3)
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes--"Hearts Of Stone" (mp3)

Okay, I'll fall on the grenade. I'll speak the blasphemy. I'll argue what many, many people have to be thinking: Bruce Springsteen's new CD, Working On A Dream, is simply not very good. In fact, much of it is pretty bad.

Forget his triumphant Super Bowl performance. Did you notice that he kept the "Working On a Dream" snippet as, by far, the shortest song segment he presented? If he didn't have the Foreigner-like choir and the glow sticks for that segment, he would have ground his entire performance to a standstill.

In Bruce's long history of musical releases, this really hasn't happened before. At least not for me. I'll admit I wasn't all that crazy about either Devils and Dust or We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, but I figured that was just me. But as time has passed, I wouldn't be that sorry if I owned either of those (I don't). On the other hand, I was given a bootleg copy of Working On A Dream last week; I wish I'd just stuck with that instead of spending $9.99 on Itunes today to own a legitimate copy.

The funny thing is, I've been feeling really good about Bruce lately. I've been thinking in my head, 'You know, Bruce is really experiencing kind of a second creative cycle. Of all of the 70's rockers, he seems to be more at the top of his game than anyone else--including favorites of mine like Neil Young and Tom Petty.' Now, instead, it's even more clear that nothing that generation has put out recently comes even close to the quality of Dylan's last studio release, Modern Times.

The problems with Bruce's new effort are threefold:

1. The songs aren't very good. Bad songs come in three forms. They aren't very memorable or they are trite/cheesy or they are poorly executed. The songs on Working On A Dream are guilty of all three sins. You think the CD starts off promisingly with "Outlaw Pete," and then you realize, wait a second, this is a cowboy song whose hero is robbing banks in diapers in the first verse and Bruce is trying to pull that off and you want to go with him and you do, sort of. You wonder if he's thinking that guys like Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie could write cowboy songs, so why can't he?

The insipid title track is so generalized in its images that it could be about anything:

Out here the nights are long,
the days are lonely, I think of you
and i'm working on a dream
I'm working on a dream

Now the cards i've drawn's a rough hand,
darlingI straighten the back
and i'm working on a dream
I'm working on a dream

If you think the song is going to zero in on something specific, think again. Every reference is a hackneyed cliche that probably is supposed to capture the American spirit, but doesn't. Contrast it, by example, with the opening of another Springsteen song about the American Dream:

On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert,
I pick up my money and head back into town,
Drivin' cross the Waynesburg County line,
I got my radio on and I'm just killin' time.

Crisp, visual, clear in tone. Everything many of the new songs are not. Conventional wisdom says to give Bruce a pass on his crappy lyrics because he worked up this CD while on the road, but, hey, take another listen to REM's New Adventures in Hi-Fi to remind yourself what a road album can be.

The litany of bad songs continues, unfortunately. "Queen of the Supermarket" is a travesty of songwriting, and, frankly, I don't think any of us want to go pushing a cart down the aisles with a persona of Springsteen's. And, frankly, I don't get the song. Is it "Girls in Their Summer Clothes, part deux?" Bruce, write me a song about the single mom you see in Toys R Us that you want to bang. Get some lust into it, instead of all this angelic bullshit. By the time the song gets to its climactic moment (which Bruce underemphasizes as if he's embarassed to say "fucking"), the song has already lost me:

As I lift my groceries in to my car
I turn back for a moment and catch a smile
That blows this whole fucking place apart

Yawn. No emotional impact.

"This Life" is probably the worst melody Springsteen has ever written. It sounds like he is channelling Barry Manilow in melody, lyric, and arrangement. There's a good reason why so many great rock songs are about lust, rather than love--lust is easier to convey. While I don't doubt that Bruce or one of his personas is in deep love with a wife or lover, the attempt to convey that in a way that is meaningful to a listener fails miserably. "Good Eye" is stupid, generic, clunky blues by a band that doesn't have a blues bone in it. Give me "Spare Parts" off of Tunnel of Love anyday of the week. I'm getting depressed talking about the bad songs, so I'll stop.

2. The production is simply terrible. Brendan O'Brien, I know you supposedly have some talents as a producer, that you have "orchestrated" some great hit records. But you've allowed or encouraged the cardinal sin of all rockers, that latent desire to be either the Beach Boys or the Beatles or both. Many songs are weighted down with wall upon wall of background vocals. How many people are in this band? Thirty? "This Life" even begins with a Beach Boys-style keyboard and California chorus of vocals. Many of the songs add either synth or real strings. I long for the simple, clean organ lines of the late Danny Federici.

Bruce and co. have also apparently forgotten the pleasures of an instrumental solo. Guitars are used only to repeat melodic lines or simple, monotonous phrases, and often are multi-tracked with other instruments. The E Street band has three very skilled (and in the case of Nils Lofgren, virtuoso) guitarists. None of them are featured in any of the songs. Before jam bands took the concept of the solo too far down the road, I thought songwriters understood how a powerful solo could really heighten the impact of a song. When we do get an instrument that stands out from the mix, it tends to be a harmonica, a blues harmonica nonetheless, and, let's face it, Bruce Springsteen is not Little Milton. There is no doubt that the E Street band is a tight, talented bunch, but there are too many of them and now their parts are multiplied even more with overdubs, so that musicians and singers get cameos, rather than solos.

3. Problems #1 and #2 cause me to overlook the CD's stronger points. "What Love Can Do" is a good, solid mid-tempo rocker, but, again, the guitar solo is simply a restatement of the vocal melody and the repetition of too many verses before that weak solo (who can even tell which guitarist is playing it?) gets boring. The slight good news is that the songs that come near the end of the CD are better. But, in the modern world, if the early songs aren't good, people usually don't stick with listening to a CD. The first time I listened to Working On A Dream, I stopped at track 9. By the way, it's no surprise that many of these later, stronger songs, "Tomorrow Never Knows," "The Last Carnival," and "The Wrestler," sit comfortably in stripped-down arrangements.

But here's the worst aspect of the songs: I simply don't believe them. And that's key with Springsteen: those who love him believe, those who don't, dont. Sorry, Bruce, you're not really in love with the Queen of the supermarket and you never will be and neither will we.

Footnote: it's probably not fair to bring Bruce's Super Bowl performance into a critique of his new CD, but I did want to note that he had no less than 5 guitarists onstage, committing that same problem of overdone, indistinguishable instrumentation that marrs much of the CD. I offer, as a contrast, a couple of tracks from an old Southside Johnny CD to demonstrate what Springsteen could sound like. Both songs were written by Springsteen; the album was produced by E Street band member Steven Van Zandt, who offers a very clean production of a 10-piece band. Just so you can hear what this evergrowing E Street could sound like. Of course, the songs are better than what he has written on this new record, but still.

Hearts of Stone is available at Itunes.


troutking said...

I want to disagree...but I can't. I could point to a couple more songs I enjoy---Life Itself for its jangly psychedelia and What Love Can Do for a strong pop hook. But, basically you are right. There is way too much glop on these songs and they don't rock. I guess Bruce fell in love with the production of Girls in their Summer Clothes. Difference is Girls has terrific lyrics that can handle the weight of the production...and it's the only song like that on Magic. The rest rocks. So, I won't disagree. I'll just say who cares? It's a misstep but Bruce is back on the road just six or eight months after finishing a tour? I ain't complaining...except about how hard it was to get tickets on Ticketmaster yesterday.

troutking said...

PS Seeger sessions and Devils and Dust are in the campus mail to you.

Anonymous said...

Points well taken, but you would have more credibility as a Bruce critic if you could get your lyrics right (it's Waynesboro county line).