Musicians wary of trying out new material
WHEN RADIOHEAD announced the track list for its “In Rainbows” album, intrepid bloggers scoured video and music sites to assemble and post a live version of the album. The same could not be achieved with Bruce Springsteen’s “Working on a Dream,” which arrives in stores today, or its predecessor “Magic.” After decades of relying on a give and take with audiences and bandmates, trying out songs in live settings and then adjusting them in the studio, Springsteen has chosen a path of isolation. And it’s hurting his art.
Making records in isolation is for acts that emphasize singles over albums. Music, at its heart is a communicative art, and that component is missing from so much of today’s popular music. When Springsteen or a musician such as Neil Young makes albums that are flat or uninspiring it’s extra disheartening: It feels like the artists who write their own rules are suddenly getting in line at a factory.
Radiohead, Springsteen, Young and a litany of indie rock acts have tapped into the primal communion that music-making has thrived on for centuries. The creation of music, especially songs made for consumption by the masses, relied on the communication between creator and audience, which can be as small as the musicians and technicians around him or as large as the stadium reacting to a new composition.
TECHNOLOGY STOPPED being music’s friend the moment it started making the creation of music easier and cheaper. When Beck sang about “two turntables and microphone” in the middle of the 1990s he was having fun; Kid Rock proved last year that’s all one needs to have a hit song.
Springsteen, who has fomented an audience relationship like few other pop stars, has relied on personal reflection and well-developed observational skills. He has a history of taking his time until he has a collection of songs with recurring themes, “The Rising” and “Devils & Dust” being the examples this century and proof that he is a voice still capable of piercing the din of rock ‘n’ roll blandness.
“Working on a Dream,” like “Magic,” is a pure studio effort, a star turning himself over to his producer and working quickly. There are successful tracks such as “Life Itself,” “What Love Can Do” and the Beach Boys-inspired “This Life,” but there is also a disorganized mess (“Outlaw Pete”), a tune that sounds like a spoof of his Everyman persona of the mid-80s (“Queen of the Supermarket”) and few more cuts that, on other efforts, would have been discarded. There are few signs of the E Street Band, making this one of the more anonymous albums in the Springsteen canon.
THE THUMBPRINT that’s all over this record belongs to Brendan O’Brien, the producer of Springsteen’s recent albums and the creative partner whose job has been to make sure Springsteen is making music for the MP3 world that digests music one song at a time. While he made the E Street Band sound new and invigorated on “The Rising,” he has now taken him out of the game of recording truly majestic songs.
The reviews include Rolling Stone’s five stars and lavish praise and a positive write-up in USA Today that called it “personal, romantic and relaxed.” Most reviews have been on the negative side of mixed. The Chicago Tribune called it “overdone and remarkably slight.” The Boston Globe termed it “sonically adventurous … But the songwriting far too often feels like an afterthought, canned and jarringly shallow.” Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times noted extensively about the literary-minded nature of artists who have to cut their ties with the notion of what an album should be. The result: “boisterously scatterbrained, exhilaratingly bad.”
The sharpest track on the disc is “The Wrestler,” its analogies a perfect match for the wounded and flawed warrior portrayed by Mickey Rourke in the film. It benefits, obviously, from collaboration and a visual image. More than a decade ago, “Jerry Maguire” brought out the beauty in “Secret Garden” and forever changed the images associated with that song. It will require some cinematic marriage to generate similar feelings about the songs on “Working on a Dream,” a move that requires collaboration and working the old-fashioned way.