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.