It landed at your feet like a flaming arrow: Radio Nowhere, the lapel-wrenching opening cut from Bruce Springsteen's 2007 album Magic. With wee Nils Lofgren knifing out a serrated solo, the Boss cupped hands to mouth and hollered at America during the Bush administration: "Is there anybody alive out there?"
The answer? Hell yeah!
His new album, Working on a Dream, in stores Tuesday, opens with Outlaw Pete, a flabby, floppy eight-minute droner about a cowboy in a complacent land. At the end, Pete is frozen in ice, like a fudge pop or Austin Powers. Again, the Boss shouts at his countrymen, entering the Obama years: "Can you hear me?"
The answer? Um, can we get back to you on that? We, uh, have a burrito in the microwave.
In one of the more head-scratching moves of Spring-steen's storied career, Working on a Dream is a 13-track slog dominated by unfocused mid-tempo storytelling. It's peppered with a few gems, but you have to wait 'til Track 7 to get the first. It doesn't so much rock 'n' roll as stumble and sway, weary B-sides in search of a theme and a Red Bull. Many of these songs came out of the Magic sessions. The orphans needed a home apparently.
Whereas Magic returned Bruce to the populist poke-in-the-eye of Born in the U.S.A. — he was cranky and catchy — Working on a Dream sounds like a Springsteen cover band that's finally decided to write a few songs of its own. He's done this before, and he's done it better.
You would think Working on a Dream would be hopeful, fun, a possible last tangle with his indomitable E Street Band. Maybe it would include some fun rock 'n' roll a la Cover Me or Born to Run, something new for him to uncork at the Feb. 1 Super Bowl show right here in Tampa.
But alas, there's nothing to inspire — us or him. Even worse, the Boss could have recorded his 16th studio album with any band. That's a shame, because the disc, produced by fave knob-twiddler Brendan O'Brien, was recorded during a recent world tour with his beloved E Streeters. It should be infused with a butt-kicking energy. Instead, everyone sounds like they need a good, long nap.
First single Working on a Dream, with its sepia-drippy 10th Avenue sing-along, and the piano-chuggy My Lucky Day, a Mad Libs version of his own Roll of the Dice, are seeming salutes to the promises of Barack Obama, but the sentiment is sappy, rote. "I've waited at your side / I've carried the tears you've cried."
Most of the album is coated in such a safe gloss that it's hard to pay attention to the poetry. The Drifters-esque Queen of the Supermarket ("A dream awaits in aisle number two . . .") might be a continuation of Magic's charming Girls In Their Summer Clothes, but I lost interest early and just figured Springsteen is horny for a girl at Target.
Then there's the cloying Life Itself and the Byrdsian blahness of Surprise, Surprise, in which Springsteen's vocal delivery is a flat, near-apathetic warble. Too many of his vocals sound sandpapered to a smooth dullness. When did he become Michael Bolton?
That's why songs such as the reckless blues stomp Good Eye are such a thrill. "Standing by the road, where the cold black water runs," Springsteen wails grit and grace through one of those bullet mikes he loves so much, and you just know a black dusty boot is keeping the menacing beat.
After a tough haul, the album ends, lo and behold, with two stunners, where we finally hear the Boss fully engaged. On The Last Carnival, he pines for "Billy" but he means Danny — Danny Federici — the E Street Band's longtime organist who died last year from melanoma. Spring-steen's heart and voice break as he sings: "We won't be dancing together on the highwire / Facing the lions with you by my side anymore . . ."
On The Wrestler, which just won a Golden Globe for best song from the titular flick, an orchestral preface leads into a tragic tale of a man struggling to find something to fight for. It's a keeper, but it's also ironic. Springsteen might miss George W. Bush more than he knows.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.