Today Bruce Springsteen released his 16th studio album, Working on a Dream and unfortunately, because I’ve been slacking, all the best blog discussions are taken. Both the AV Club and Snake Oil placed the record’s awful, awful album art as part of a long line of bad Springsteen cover concepts (although it’s funny where the two posts disagree, like with Tunnel of Love and The Rising). And Stereogum got the ball rolling on whether the mind-numbingly bad “Queen of the Supermarket” might just be the worst song that The Boss has ever put to tape (it’s up there, but a couple of stinkers from The River are up there as well in my books).
So with those topics off the table, here’s my question to tackle: isn’t it time that Springsteen broke up with producer Brendan O’Brien?
I know what you’re thinking, and on the surface I agree: it seems weird that the man who guided Springsteen out of an unproductive 1990s and back into the spotlight should be put out to pasture. Moreover, the fact that Working on a Dream is a rather unfulfilling experience owes most of the blame to The Boss himself, who has delivered his most uninspired set of songs since probably Human Touch.
But I’m of the mind that the partnership between the two of them is based on a fundamentally false premise: that O’Brien’s glossy sheen and over-mixed production are the natural successors to Born to Run’s wall of sound or Born in the USA‘s keyboard waves. I don’t buy it. There’s a danger in those records that O’Brien has rarely captured on his four albums with the Boss. Springsteen characters are always hurtling towards and uncertain fate, driving towards the cliff not knowing if they’ll hit the brakes or not. Instead of pushing towards the edge, O’Brien’s work aims for a cozy middle, Springsteen’s characters snug inside. At times, it’s worked – about half of The Rising and most of Magic, a few tracks from Devils and Dust manage to keep their sense of danger. More often than not, though, the gloss prevails and the story suffers.
It’s perhaps telling that Springsteen’s one record this decade without O’Brien – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions – was also the most lively and energetic. And fittingly, O’Brien doesn’t lay a finger on Working on a Dream’s best track, whichisn’t even on the album proper. It’s “The Wrestler,” the title song to Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant little film starring Mickey Rourke, stuck at record’s end as a bonus track. It manages to sound hyperdramatic and professional without losing the raw sadness at its core. The song’s producer? Bruce Springsteen.