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Music Review: Bruce Springsteen – Working on a Dream

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Sometimes, I find myself very disappointed with the state of music writing. For every well-written and thoughtful review, there are twenty that are full of clichés, half-truths, and verbiage that does everything but talk about the music. Of course, I don't need to remind myself that this state of affairs, which is nothing new, is exactly what got me interested in becoming a writer in the first place.

Art is out there waiting to be captured, the only question being whether we are prepared to recognize it. — Michael Kimmelman

This sense of disappointment becomes especially intense when a major recording artist issues a new release. The problem isn't so much that I find myself in agreement or disagreement with the reviews. No, what really gets me down is that it just seems like the writers very often miss the point. In their attempt to reveal the supposed agenda behind the new record, they miss mountains of important details.

With Working On A Dream, this phenomenon seemed to jump to a new level — even among the 'fans.' Bruce "dashed these songs off too quickly," the writing is simplistic, he's "given up," he's just "looking back at what used to be," he knows his career is almost over, he's just out to make a buck. Wow. Opinions aside, it appears that these people have some sort of E-Street crystal ball, one with perfect vision in all directions.

What's pretty clear to me is that Springsteen caught a spark of inspiration when working on Magic. On that record you can hear it in songs like "I'll Work For Your Love," and (especially) "Girls In Their Summer Clothes." The hooks and melodies from the music of his formative years has worked its way back into his songwriting. Many such tunes showed up as guests during the Magic tour, my favorites being "Then She Kissed Me" and "Little Latin Lupe Lu."

Set the theme
with a cadence
of love's old
sweet song -

No harm in
the emotional

nor in remembering all
you can or want to

Let the faint, faded music
pour forth its wonder
and bewitch whom it will,
still dancers under the moon – Robert Creeley

Thematically, Bruce is indeed looking back… and ahead. Songs like "Life Itself," "Kingdom Of Days," and "Tomorrow Never Knows," and "This Life" look at the passage of time while keeping an eye toward the future. Love gets a person to a particular place and, hopefully, is a guide into tomorrow. The thoughts are painted out with sonic elements from pop music's past. "Life Itself" contains some jangly, Byrds-like guitar work that culminates in a twisted, backwards guitar solo. The backing vocals on "Working On Dream" as well as "Queen Of The Supermarket" would have been at home on a Mamas and Papas record. "This Life" begins with a strong Brian Wilsonism, and the soaring vocals during the chorus have more than a little Fifth Dimension flair.

Elsewhere, Springsteen visits several other musical styles, from the cinematic orchestrations of "Outlaw Pete" (with Morricone-esque guitar figures) to the country shuffle of "Tomorrow Never Knows" (which reminded me of my mom's old Charlie Pride records), to the exuberant rock of "My Lucky Day" to the snarling blues of "Good Eye." Heck, even the Beatles get in on the act with the giddy pop of "Surprise, Surprise."

Working On A Dream ends with a solid pair of emotion-laden songs. "The Last Carnival" is a fine acoustic ballad and sendoff to the late Danny Federici. The calliope notes are a beautiful touch, as are the swelling gospel-tinged vocals that end the song. "The Wrestler," while written for Mickey Rourke's film character, can be applied to just about any person who has had to deal with decline.

The descriptions of this record as 'facile' and 'simplistic' cause me to wonder if we're listening to the same music. Sure, there's some pop music here amidst the 'serious' material. But to decide that the album was tossed together quickly out of leftovers and half-baked ideas? Well, I don't own one of those crystal balls, so don't ask me.

Why do the things that we treasure most, slip away in time
Till to the music we grow deaf, to God's beauty blind — Bruce Springsteen, "Life Itself"

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About Mark Saleski

  • Wild Billy

    Great review. Spot on.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    And here you had me convinced all this time that you’re not a “lyric Person”…

    -Glen

  • JC Mosquito

    Awwwwwww…… I’m going to disagree here – analyze it any way you want – it just doesn’t have the spark that elevates a good record into a great record.

  • http://marksaleski.com MarkSaleski

    jc, i suppose you could call this an analysis, though really i was attempting to enumerate the reasons that i found myself listening to this record so much.

    is it a better record than Magic? don’t really care. it’s certainly different. what’s weird is that i listened to Magic like crazy, but i’ve listened to this one even more.

  • JC Mosquito

    “… ‘facile’ and ‘simplistic’ …. tossed together ….. half-baked……….” – I agree – these are descriptors that don’t really apply here. However, the last I heard, this album hadn’t even cracked the 1/2 million sales mark. Not that sales have any relation to quality, but in this case it does indicate that there’s something about this album that ISN’T connecting with its intended audience.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I buy Springsteen CDs as soon as they hit the store, always give them a good listen, and find (as I do with every CD) that the proof comes in the playing. If I keep playing it over weeks and months, it’s usually pretty good. “Working on a Dream,” I’m afraid, wore itself out after a very few listens.

    Musically, it’s gooey and repetitive. Lyrically, it’s embarrassing. For example: “When the sun comes out tomorrow, it’ll be the start of a brand new day.” Or: “Have you ever seen a one legged dog makin’ his way down the street?” (Quick answer: No, and neither have you. A one-legged dog doesn’t make his way down anywhere. He just thrashes.)

    There were some spots in the record I liked, and it amused me from a rock history perspective that he nicked song titles from both the Beatles (“Tomorrow Never Knows”) and the Rolling Stones (“Surprise, Surprise.”)

    I’ll be honest: I do not like criticizing Springsteen. I tend to be loyal to him. But when someone asked me my opinion of this album recently, I said “Well, let’s just say that if I wanted to convince someone that Bruce Springsteen is a great singer, performer, songwriter and all-round force to be reckoned with, this is probably the last album I would ever offer as evidence.”

  • http://marksaleski.com MarkSaleski

    yeah, it’s a weird thing rodney. i still often wonder why i do or don’t like something. but i come at this from an oddball perspective. this makes josh hathaway’s eyeballs spin counterclockwise: i dont really care about lyrics. i mean, i DO…but they’re way down on the list for me and i very often don’t even hear them until i’ve listened to a record ten or twenty times, if not more. even when i do get to them, it’s rare that i hear a song as a total package.

    so (to again make josh’s eyeballs spin) i’ll bring up the album that many people have said is a high point of Bruce’s songwriting: Tunnel of Love. i hate that record. to my ears it’s the more boring thing he’s ever done. the lyrics never mattered to me.

  • http://scottpeterson.typepad.com/ scott

    Mark–

    I’m with you on the lyrics, sorta. I love great lyrics, but only if they accompany great music. And there are many songs I love with passable, at best, lyrics. Many of my favorite bands have nary a song with truly great lyrics. I mean, I don’t listen to Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr for the words, but I love those bands to pieces anyway.

    On the other hand, when there is an artist or band with great lyrics and great music–Dylan and Springsteen, obviously, leap to mind–the combination is unbeatable.

    But Tunnel of Love amazes me. I’ll admit that “Cautious Man” is, to my ears, the worst song he released on album since his debut. But “One Step Up” is gorgeous musically, as is the title track, to name just two. In fact, musically, I find the album every bit as strong as anything he’s ever done. The fact that the lyrics are amongst his best is just icing on the cake.

  • http://marksaleski.com MarkSaleski

    one thing for sure is that the arrangements really bother me. i don’t mean the supposed ‘dated’ sound, but the fact that a lot of the tunes are built around very simple percussion and either strummed acoustic guitar or keyboards. electric guitar is mostly avoided.

    i think if the record had come out in a more purely acoustic format, i might have liked it more. as it is, a lot of the tunes go nowhere musically.

    Sonic Youth: who cares about the words?! i’m there for the sheer guitar blasphemy!

  • JC Mosquito

    Springsteen’s main problem right now is with the competition – the competition being the memory of his younger self. People who were interested in every word, nuance, and outtake and how those elements contributed to Bruce’s artistic growth are less interested in hearing an artist level off and maintain himself.

  • http://marksaleski.com MarkSaleski

    …are less interested in hearing an artist level off and maintain himself.

    oh gawd, supposed ‘fans’ have been bitching about Bruce not being 1978 Bruce for years now. i just ignore them.

  • JC Mosquito

    Sure, but the problem is not that an artist turns out the same schlock for years on end – some people are coomforted by that. The point is instead that an artist can’t be a creative force in the same way twice in a row – that’s practically a direct contradiction of the very definition of creative. So he or she has to coast at points – “mainitain course, maintain speed and just keep the beat afloat” as it were. And fans just got used to each album & tour showing he was just that much better than whoever was second. As good as his last three albums ahve been, they’re not that much better – they’re only just as good f that.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    There are probably moments when all of us say “Lyrics don’t matter.” There are innumerable great songs where the lyrics seem beside the point. But Springsteen, likes Dylan, puts the words front and center. He’s a storyteller. The words are important. He crafts them (or tries to) and I think if you fail to judge him on his lyrics, you fail to judge him as a whole. Not only that, as I said, the music is lame, sugary, overripe, and so earnestly joyful it makes my teeth hurt. Springsteen can capture the dark side of life with great empathy; however, while he hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for expressing joy, he has lost his talent for expressing it.

  • JC Mosquito

    Ouch – I think saying he’s lost his talent is harsh – as I mentioned, I think he’s in a coasting phase – a phase necessary to most artists so they can regroup and continue. And even if he were ever to lose his talent, I’d bet he’s a good enough craftsman to write a mediocre song and spruce it up enough to make it sound good to most people. Art and craft go hand in hand – or should, anyways.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I’m inclined to think, JC, that if there are two sides of Springsteen, one light and one dark, he’s almost always better with the latter than the former. Working on a Dream makes me thnk of Human Touch, another album that seemed to display little more than Springsteen’s easy susceptibility to cliched emotionalism. Magic and the superb Tunnel of Love were better because they captured the highs and lows of love, the sense of doubt, the fact that things don’t always turn out well, that life is as much dark cloud as silver lining.

  • JC Mosquito

    Then I would assume your fave album would be Nebraska – which runs about 80 – 90% dark, however anyone wishes to define it.

    Although it’s a finely worded phrase, I don’t have a problem with “easy susceptibility to cliched emotionalism,” which I think applies to dark as well as light. As Pete Townsend once said, “Rock and roll won’t solve your problmes, but it will let you sort of dance all over them.”

    I think the best of Tunnel, HT & LTown could’ve been assembled into a great album that showcased Springsteen’s writing processes. Instead, there’s a lot of clutter to get through.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Tunnel of Love is fine as is. There’s not a bad song on it. The highlights of Lucky Town and Human Touch maybe would make a decent EP.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    You guys are still carrying on about this? Look…Mark’s a notorious ToL hater round these parts, and I doubt you’re gonna change his mind. Personally, I love the album…its an easy top 5 Bruce record for me. “Brilliant Disguise” “Tougher Than The Rest” “One Step Up” and the title track rank right up with Springsteen’s best songs. Besides, that album helped me through a pretty brutal breakup back when it came out.

    As for HT/LT, both have grown on me over the years, but I still think the best tracks from the two of them would have made a better single disc.

    WOAD? A good, but not great Bruce record. It has its moments, and the sound is a lot cleaner than on Magic. But nothing on WOAD floors me the way that 3/4’s of Magic did. “Life Itself” “lucky Day” probably come closest and I like “Outlaw Pete” a lot just for its sheer audaciousness. But overall, I think Magic had much better songs.

    Personally, I don’t think WOAD will stand the test of time as one of Bruce’s great ones…but it is still a very decent record.

    Right now, I’m just dying for the stripped down acoustic record that I’d bet money is coming next.

    -Glen

  • http://www.marksaleski.com MarkSaleski

    yeah, i know…i’m not saying that anybody is wrong. it’s just that i never ‘got’ this record. and even live performances of some of the tunes do nothing for me. usually the live version thing can change my mind.

    i dunno, they always seemed like half-formed songs to me.

    also, Bruce rarely plays them live, which is sort of weird for one of his ‘best’ albums. i suppose he’s a different person now than back then, though that applies to his entire back catalog.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Brilliant Disguise, Tunnel, and Tougher Than The Rest usually show up on a few dates every tour. In other words, about as often as say something like “Kittys Back” or “Lost In The Flood” which I guess would make them part of those “special shows” everyone likes to rave about. They just don’t get played as often as “Badlands” “Born To Run” etc. do.

    Anyway, I’ve given up trying to change your mind about ToL and I’m not gonna reopen that can of whatever here. But the songs DO get played.

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    If you wanna talk about rarely played songs, theres always “The Price You Pay”. Now that one is rarely played.

    -Glen

  • http://www.marksaleski.com MarkSaleski

    no reports of that song on the signs during the last tour? i didn’t see any.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    None that I’m aware of…except for mine of course.

    -Glen

  • Al

    Call me a devoted Bruce fan but it is all so much better than whatever else is out there that the anal analysis becomes irrelevant.
    I loved “Queen of the Supermarket,” can’t stop humming the lyric and can’t think of a more inane Bruce song over the last 30+ years.
    ……as the evening sky grows dim.
    Hell, I love it. Give me more.