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 emotionalnor 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.
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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"