Bruce Springsteen Working on a Dream

[Columbia; 2009]

Others: Other arena packers

Although one could justifiably toss more than a few critical stabs Bruce Springsteen’s way, accusing him of taking things easy wouldn’t be one. While he hasn’t cultivated the batshit-to-the-wind reputation of, say, Neil Young or Lil’ Wayne, Springsteen’s career has been far more varied than the casual observer might note. “The Boss” is often thought of as the sleeves-rolled-up everyman, ass planted in front of the Stars and Stripes belting out “Born in the USA” (itself a remarkably misunderstood tune), but his career has been littered with detours from the perceived Springsteen norm: the stark, apocalyptic folk of Nebraska as follow-up to the pop success of The River; the wild, unhinged folk and bluegrass of We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions; the sexual and violent undertones of Devils and Dust. Not to mention that the first two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle bear little resemblance to his ’80s and ’90s work, two albums of hyper-literate, jumbled rock poetry. And let’s not forget that, while entirely ubiquitous now, Born to Run and its marriage of B-movie wide-screen scope and curbside romance was truly revolutionary, establishing Springsteen as master of street-level pathos.

Working on a Dream opens with “Outlaw Pete,” an outlaw Western yarn far removed from the Jersey shore. The song is gigantic mess, eight minutes worth of dramatic tempo changes and Sergio Leone-epic lyrics. Opening an album with such a track is risky, and listening to Springsteen detail the travails of Outlaw Pete -- robbing a bank in his diapers and bare baby feet, falling in love with a Navajo girl and settling down on the res, a climactic battle with bounty hunter Dan -- it’s incredibly hard to feel that the risk was justified. Yet somehow, around the seven-minute mark, Clarence “Big Man” Clemons’ sax roars to the forefront, the twin guitars of Nils Lofgren and “Little Steven” Van Zandt stab upwards, and Springsteen, in his best Roy Orbison, bellows "Can you hear me?" The simple lyric takes on spiritual, existential weight when coupled with The E Street Band’s incredible force, and just like they did on Born to Run, his bandmates, all long-standing and loyal, add the technicolor magic to Sprinsteen’s screenplays.

Nothing else on the album tries as hard, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. The two songs that follow it, “My Lucky Day” and the title track, are straightforward, no-bullshit mini-operas.“My Lucky Day” is pushed forward by the propulsive wallop of Max Weinberg’s drums, and “Working on a Dream” espouses with bar-band bliss, the kind of platitudes President Obama anchored down his Inauguration speech with: now is a time for optimism, but also hard work. Like Magic, Springsteen’s last long-player, the best tunes here mine a curious retro-pop angle. “This Life” opens with a Pet Sounds intro before settling into Byrds-y jangle, and “Surprise Surprise” bounces along in a distinctly power-pop direction. “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “The Last Carnival,” the latter an elegy for departed E Street Member Danny Federici, recall the rootsy folk excursions of The Seger Sessions with great success.

If only all the tracks worked as well as these. “Queen of the Supermarket” finds Springsteen as schmaltzy as he’s ever been, a puppy dog love song with our narrator obsessed with a cute checkout girl. It feels like even Bruce recognizes the cheese in lines like "a dream awaits in aisle two"; he goes far to retain some edge with an uncharacteristic line like "I turn back for a moment and catch a smile/ That blows this whole fucking place apart." “What Love Can Do” features some interesting religious metaphor, but producer Brendan O’Brien’s slick, spit-shined modern rock sound robs the song of any real grit. Starbucks shoppers will no doubt bask in this jam while awaiting their double-whip frappuccinos. “Good Eye” gets funky in that trite, stomach-churning white-boy blues way, and while O’Brien adds some wicked distortion to Springsteen’s vocals, he also concentrates on making the song sound huge, refusing to give any instrument room to be heard as anything apart from the midrange-y stew he’s concocted. And please, with the harmonica! With more indie and punk rockers acknowledging his marked influence than ever before, now seems like the natural time for The E Street Band to cut a raw record. Working on a Dream isn’t one; it strives, especially on rumblers like “Like Itself,” to endear itself to the Adult Alternative crowd. It’s a drag to imagine Coldplay as an edgier force than the man and group who laid “Rosalita” on tape 36 years ago.

“The Wrestler,” the song Springsteen wrote for the eponymous film, is tacked on as a bonus track, no doubt an effort by Columbia to capitalize on the Golden Globe shine the song and film have received. Surely the studio heads did not realize what a saving grace including it would be. Just as it does in the film, it closes this collection of songs on a solemn note, Springsteen’s unwavering voice steadily and assuredly delivering the best song he’s written in years. Much of Working a Dream feels ecstatic, basking in the glow of hope and optimism, but “The Wrestler” reminds us that Springsteen knows the value of steely-eyed realism. "I always leave with less than I had before... but I can make you smile when the blood hits the floor/ Tell me friend can you ask for anything more?"

In the face of a crumbled economy, two flagging wars, and a nation in spiritual and emotional strife, it would be a colossal understatement to say that these are lousy days in American history. But it’s also a time of remarkable occurrences. A president who’s already made history and now has the chance to help heal the country. How about the freakin’ Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl, with the Boss providing the halftime show? Working on a Dream, like our battered country, is riddled with flaws. But when Bruce sings "I’m working on a dream/ Though it can feel so far away/ I’m working on a dream/ And our love with make it real someday," it’s a little hard not to be swept up in the concept, to allow ourselves to savor the idea that our redemption and celebration can be one thing, to roll up our sleeves, put aside the things that have consumed us too long and get to work. Ideas like that are rare, and artists who inspire in our guts a sense that rock ‘n’ roll and America can still mean something are even rarer. We ask a lot of Bruce Springsteen, but something tells me he probably likes it that way.

1. Outlaw Pete
2. My Lucky Day
3. Working on Dream
4. Queen of the Supermarket
5. What Love Can Do
6. This Life
7. Good Eye
8. Tomorrow Never Knows
9. Life Itself
10. Kingdom of Days
11. Surprise Surprise
12. The Last Carnival
13. The Wrestler [bonus track]

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