I like Bruce Springsteen. I do. He’s never going to be a member of the Pantheon (Bob Dylan / Neil Young / Van Morrison / Stevie Wonder), nor will any of his records, outside of, say, Born to Run, ever crack the personal top thirty. Much as I might like them, I’ll never evangelize for Darkness on the Edge of Town like I have for the Band’s second album, or listen obsessively to Nebraska like I have to Al Green’s Call Me. I’ll collect the occasional concert recording to get a sense for what people mean when they refer to particularly legendary concerts by him. And I’ll even await new records with some degree of enthusiasm. Not as any kind of superfan, but as someone who is interested.
All this by way of saying that I’ve heard Working on a Dream and I’m not impressed. The songs are ultimately okay, if not necessarily as “worked” as those on Magic, but the production kills the thing. Just kills the thing.
(A sidenote: I’m not a fanatical “loudness is killing everything” prophet o’ doom, but there’s no doubt that a lot of recordings are brickwalled, over-compressed, and hard to listen to).
It’s this friable, high, trebly, bright, mechanical shine that holds us at arm’s length. It becomes not fun as a listening experience. And, for Mr. Springsteen, that must be a sort of nasty irony: you write fun, sunshine radio songs that, thanks to the mastering, no one can enjoy listening to.
And it’s not like I have phenomenal ears. A few years of club shows and too many hours in the basement with loud guitar and drums have, I’m sure, left me with at least a few gaps in my audible tone range, but even I can hear how ridiculous the production is and how poorly it frames the songs. Same thing with Magic, really – and those were better songs, even.
Maybe I have to get over that with Mr. Springsteen. Maybe I have to accept that, with the exception of three, maybe four records, he’s not going to make something with a sound I like as much as the songs.
(Those exceptions: The Wild / Innocent, Born to Run, Nebraska, and, arguably, Darkness, though even that last one has a disappointing drum sound that keeps something like “Badlands” from being the piledriver it could be).
Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love both suffer from dated sound (instrumentation) and awful, dated production (those gated drums and that keyboard-wash over everything). I like those songs, for the most part, but I can’t, just can’t, listen to “Dancing in the Dark” because of how it sounds.
Most problematic about Magic and Dream: the older albums (even USA and Tunnel) have a sense of dynamics. Everything, essentially everything on the two latest – every note, every riff, every cymbal splash – is placed at the same (maximum) volume throughout the records. Any place that a song could get louder, any moment in which a dynamic shift might be natural, winds up distorted instead. And, in almost every case, the instrumentation is the same from the beginning of each song to the end. There’s no build, neither in dynamics nor in arrangement. That accelerating race through “Thunder Road”? Won’t happen. You know that moment when the drums, the guitars, finally crash in on the piano figure in “Backstreets,” how that makes you feel? You won’t (and can’t) find that here.
And I know that an album is an ultimately disposable product, and no one’s asking – or, at least, I’m not asking – for the same song to be written over and over again, but to make entire albums that sound like “Night” (maxed out and crashing all the way through) doesn’t seem like the way to make a product that might last. Songs like Magic’s “Living in the Future” or Dream’s “This Day” deserve better.