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.