On The B-Side: Why you can’t trust reviews

I LOVE Bruce Springsteen; I really do. But I have an admission to make. His last album? Working On A Dream. I thought it was more of a nightmare.

‘So bleeding what?’ you might be thinking; and ‘why are you telling me now – almost two years after it was released?’ Well, it’s only now that I feel like I can actually say it. You see, everyone liked that album. Not loved it; liked it. It got three or four-star reviews wherever I looked. I tried to like it; I thought I did like it, a bit. It felt wrong to say anything against the grain. But now I’m sure that I really, truly don’t like it. And it’s a relief to come clean.

But I’m not just picking on Brucie. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen any bad reviews of new albums for ages. And I read a lot of music magazines. Every major new record seems to get three or four stars, quite a lot of get all five.

There are reasons for that, I know. Bands and artists only tend to do interviews when they’re pushing an album and a magazine is hardly likely to stick a superstar on the cover and gushingly discuss their new superstar music and then pick apart that music in the review pages. And you can’t always trust that first reaction to a record; sometimes they get much, much better over a little time – but it most definitely works both ways.

The last U2 album, No Line On The Horizon, is a prime example of the first of those two points (as was every post-97 Oasis album). No Line... got a five-star “career high” review in Q, alongside a cover interview with Bono and co. But to these ears, aside from a couple of tracks, it was a desperately disappointing record.

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I don’t blame reviewers for playing safe with a 3/5, at least. No-one’s going to get angry about that. But it’s a bit like a football reporter giving a player six out of 10 when he can’t really remember anything he’s done in the game. Bryan Robson used to get man of the match because he was Bryan Robson. For Bryan Robson, read Bruce Springsteen, perhaps?

I’m not being negative for the sake of it; and I know that just about every album is a five-star album to someone (even Five Star albums, 80s fans) but we all seem to get a bit carried away with new albums and the surge of promo, with pumped-up pop star pledging their new record is the best of the year/their best for 10 years/the greatest achievement in recorded sound. I’m not suggesting anything changes, either. I’ll always enjoy album reviews. It’s fascinating to read journos trying to nail how good a record is; even if they don’t always get it right. And even if – like the raft of excitable reviews for the recent Arcade Fire record – you can’t work out quite what they’re on about.

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I often find it’s left to the artists themselves to tell it like it is – when they launch their next album. “Much better than the last one,” they say. That one was produced wrong;their heads weren’t right;they’d been taking too many drugs etc. But this time, well, lend me your ears and hold on to your hat.

I don’t think Springsteen will say make any admissions about Working On A Dream, though. I don’t like to see any signs of weakness in The Boss. And I’m still looking forward to a new album. I reckon he’s already got the first two stars of his reviews in the bag. But I hope he has to work hard for more than that. That’s the dream, Bruce.

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