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Music Review: Bruce Springsteen – Working On A Dream

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Bruce Springsteen's third album with the E Street Band this decade — and his second in just under two years — is, on an initial listen at least, something of a mixed bag.

On the positive side, Working On A Dream also represents what could be the most stylistically varied collection of new songs of Springsteen's entire career. There's everything here from the epic tale of "Outlaw Pete," to the jangly sounding sixties pop of "Surprise, Surprise," to the Beach Boys styled sweep of "This Life." WOAD also includes what may be two of Springsteen's most achingly beautiful songs ever in "The Last Carnival" and "The Wrestler."

But where there are hits, there are also misses.

Brendan O'Brien's production, often a sore spot with Springsteen's hardcore fans, usually works here. The swirling organ and orchestral flourishes of "Outlaw Pete" come through with crystal clarity, as do the borderline doo-wop backing vocals of the title track. Likewise, the calliope organ fills and chiming piano accents of "My Lucky Day" never once clash with one another in the mix.

Note that I said usually, however. Because the Beatles-esque guitars that might have otherwise made "Surprise, Surprise" a standout of sixties sounding pop are completely buried here. The same thing happens again to the guitars on "This Life" (although the day is thankfully saved by a killer arrangement, and a nice Big Man sax solo at the end).

Still, there is a lot to like about Working On A Dream.

The eight-minute opener, "Outlaw Pete," is a return to the epic storytelling of Springsteen's best work in the seventies — think "Jungleland," and how it might sound as a spaghetti western. "Life Itself" combines a melancholic, mid-eastern feel with Byrdsy sounding twelve string guitars and a wicked sounding backwards masked solo that comes midway through the song.

"This Life" starts out with a gorgeous keyboard swell which instantly recalls the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," before settling into the same sweeping pop and deeply registered Springsteen vocal that made "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" one of the standout tracks from Magic.

"Good Eye" finds Springsteen deep in Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street territory. A blues stomp similar to that album's "Shake Your Hips," Springsteen fans will recognize the bluesy harmonica and boom mic used from the live versions of "Reason To Believe" heard on the Magic tour. "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a shuffling little country number that recalls "All I'm Thinking About Is You" from Devils & Dust.

As varied stylistically as this album is, the various influences here are all commonly grounded in pop music. For his own part, Springsteen also seems to have once again found his own voice. His vocals here are some of his strongest in years, and there's not a Woody Guthrie influenced "sir" or "mister" to be found anywhere in his inflections. I confess that those have always bugged me, by the way.

Lyrically speaking, Springsteen's Republican fans will be pleased to know that it's okay to come back home after the more politically themed songs of Magic. There's not a single Bush-bashing cut to be found on WOAD. Although, with all the references to the sun, the moon, and the stars found here, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Springsteen may be consulting an astrologer. More than half of the songs here reference the heavens in one form or another.

Sometimes the heavenly lyrics come from dark places, such as with the character who "had my good eye to the dark, and my blind eye to the sun" on "Good Eye." More often however, the references to stars and sky serve as metaphors for relationships. "This Life" urges its lovers on with the line "as you slip into my car, the evening sky strikes sparks" (there's a line straight out of Born To Run if ever I've heard it).

As much as relationships seem to be the common thread winding throughout much of Working On A Dream, there are just as many songs which also seem to be about the often painful circumstances which come with them. The line "here's one for the road, here's one to your health, and one for life itself" from "Life Itself," for example, is one which drips with loss and regret.

But nowhere is this felt more profoundly than on "The Last Carnival," a sendoff to fallen E-Street Band comrade Danny Federici (who died last year). Springsteen sums the loss up succinctly by saying "we'll be riding that train without you tonight" as the voices of an angelic choir rise in the background. The bonus track, and title song from the Mickey Rourke film, The Wrestler, is equally poignant in describing how that movie's character "makes you smile when the blood hits the floor, tell me can you ask for anything more."

It's fitting that these two beautiful songs close this album.

Not everything on Working On A Dream works quite as well though. The keyboard intro on "Queen Of The Supermarket" recalls the Darkness On The Edge Of Town song "Something In The Night" to the point that you expect to hear the anguished Springsteen howl of that song come busting through the speakers any minute. It never does, instead descending into a silly lyric where "aisles of dreams await you." Tracks like "What Love Can Do" and "Kingdom Of Days" likewise are largely forgettable.

Overall though, Working On A Dream's high marks far outnumber its low points. It's also nice to see Springsteen exploring the boundaries of pop music again with the same zeal he did with folk for much of the past couple of decades. For right now anyway, I'll take Bruce getting his ya-yas out over him rolling in the dust bowls any day.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://wp.blogcritics.org/writer/wesley_mead Wesley Mead

    Nice review, Glen. Thanks.

    I’m really enjoying this album. I’ve always been a sucker for Bruce’s pop songs, so “Kingdom of Days” and “Surprise, Surprise” are early favourites. But there’s such a vast array of musical styles on display here that I’m finding it hard to compare them all after just a few listens.

  • http://marksaleski.com MarkSaleski

    nice review glen. i’m still in the ‘ingesting’ phase.

  • Paul Roy

    Good review Glen. Rolling Stone gave it five stars. I think they got a little carried away.

  • http://blogcritics.org/archives/2009/01/27/0157022.php David Bowling

    Thanks Glen. I intend to purchase the album today. I’m glad that you gave it a positive review as the anticipation has been building for months. Now onward to the Super Bowl.

  • http://blogcritics.org Lisa McKay

    Nice, Glen. This is the first review of WOAD that I’ve read, and I’m looking forward to finding my package from Amazon on the front porch when I get home today.

  • http://marksaleski.com MarkSaleski

    my only quibble is that i don’t think the site you linked to has any hardcore fans anymore.

  • http://www.songplanet.net/members/3332/blog.php JC Mosquito

    I’ve been listening to the album online, and picked it up yesterday. Not sure what to make of it yet, but the mix of musical styles & songwriting perspectives suggests to me that Springsteen is working out something on a deep, personal level. I don’t know – I’m not a mind reader – but perhaps he’s dealing with his own mortality and that of his peers in the context of Danny Federici’s recent passing. On a few spins, anyway, the album has the sound of someone looking through his personal effects before deciding either to take them along on the next part of the journey, or to pack them away in storage for a while.