march 2009

Now About That Shower Song...

By Billy Altman

Rx for Bruce: When in the shower, sing 'The Wrestler'

Bruce Springsteen

There's an old saying about fame and fortune that goes something along the lines of noting that the song you hum in your marble-walled, gold-fauceted shower isn't necessarily the song that got you into that shower in the first place. And listening to Bruce Springsteen's latest, Working On A Dream, one is continually struck by two things: first, by the abundance of '60s-centric musical reference points that keep popping up over and over throughout this CD; and second, by the fact that, almost without exception, these reference points accomplish very little in terms of informing the songs themselves with any meaningful clarity or focus. All of which turns what might have been a fairly straightforward album of small songs (and that's not meant as a knock) into an overthought, and as a result overwrought, puzzle of a work that mostly just gets in its own way.

Two good examples are "This Life" and "Life Itself," a pair of love songs whose arrangements seem deliberately designed to evoke the spirits of, respectively, the Beach Boys and the Byrds. In the case of the former, one might suggest that its upbeat mood and message ("There's a million suns cresting where you stood...this lonely plant never looked so good") reflects a Brian Wilson-esque (good) vibe(ration), but apart from a very self-conscious intro with Gary Tallent's bass pushed to the forefront, and an even more self-conscious outro featuring post-doo-wop background vocals, there's nothing really about the song's inherent melody or structure that would lead you to think or feel Beach Boys. In the case of the latter, one might likewise suggest that lines like "We fall away in our own darkness, a stranger to our own hearts" suggest a disoriented—and dare one say—psychedelic point of view. Again, though, nothing about the melody or structure of "Life Itself," is particularly Byrds-like, making the raga-ish guitar leads and backwards violin passages just sonic red herrings. And given Springsteen's signature bellowing vocal style and the E Street Band's overall heavy hand, such nods to the Byrds and the Beach Boys, two of the most soaringly ethereal groups ever, seem especially misguided.

These two examples aren't isolated, either, as other numbers skew towards the likes of Warren Zevon (the Celtic-tinged "What Love Can Do"), John Fogerty (the country-ish "Tomorrow Never Knows"), Paul Simon (the folksy "The Last Carnival"), even Jimmy Webb (the pop-melodramatic "Kingdom of Days") - but, alas, with nothing past the "sounds like" surface skims as raison d'etres. Just how much of this should be accountable to producer Brendan O'Brien and his deliberately diffuse sonic approach and how much to Springsteen himself is hard to say. But it is significant that the far and away best track here is "The Wrestler," which Springsteen wrote for actor Mickey Rourke's film of the same name, and which appears here at the very end of the album as a so-marked "bonus" track. Starkly presented—just guitar and keyboards—its portrait of a wounded, hollowed-out soul ("Have you ever seen a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and weeds/ Have you ever seen a scarecrow then you've seen me"), this self-produced performance resonates with a simplicity and forthrightness abjectly missing from the rest of Working On A Dream. And it's the one that Bruce might want to start humming in the shower before he begins penning his next batch of songs. 

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024