Review: Bruce Springsteen’s “Working On A Dream”

Jan 28, 2009 9:30am

  The boss’ last record, "Magic" was surprisingly vital.  It definitely, unexpectedly won me over. “Radio Nowhere” was Bruce at his most rocking and raw, which was nice to hear.  Springsteen is a respected for good reason.  He’s an ace storyteller and has been since the beginning.  In many ways, he’s the heir to Dylan’s folk legacy.  He’s a quintessentially American songwriter telling stories informed by his New Jersey roots.  For more than thirty-five years, he’s found his loyal audience.  In many ways, “Working On A Dream” continues the resurgence that “Magic" began.  It’s a darker, more somber record for obvious reasons.  Last year’s death of E-Street Band keyboardist Danny Federici (who appears on the record) is perhaps a reason for the somber mood. (The liner notes contain text from Federici’s eulogy and the album is dedicated to him.)   But in many ways, the album finds Bruce just being Bruce.  He tells a story one minute then busts out a sing-along bar-band jam the next.  In other words, longtime Springsteen fans should be pleased with this record.  If you’ve never understood Springsteen, this record probably won’t change your mind. A few tracks are by-the-numbers efforts but even when Springsteen seems like he’s half asleep, he’s still working out something memorable.    The record begins with “Outlaw Pete,” an epic, drawn-out eight-minute ballad.  Bruce has always been best in storytelling mode.   It begins in a goofy way, though.  He’s trying to set up the character as troubled and I suppose that’s why he uses such an exaggerated, cartoon-y set of opening lines. “He was born a little baby on the Appalachian Trail. / At six months old he’d done three months in jail. / He robbed a bank in his diapers and little bare baby feet. / All he said was ‘Folks, my name is Outlaw Pete.’”  Of course, this follows a long folk tradition of embellishment.  Not only does this track follow a strong tradition, it continues said tradition somewhat effectively.  Springsteen is able to effectively spin an enthralling yarn.  “My Lucky Day” is next.  It finds Springsteen in vintage “Glory Days”-style shouting mode. It’s rather basic Springsteen but it pleases the ears nonetheless.  He can craft anthems that will make you want to sing along instantly and this will be added to his already impressive list. Next, the album’s title track is a little humdrum.  It’ll find its audience but this doesn’t quite have the punch of most the music on “Magic.”  It sounds a little like the filler on “The Rising.”  That being said, it’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination and the whistled solo is a nice touch. “Queen Of The Supermarket” is a better example of Springsteen in low-key mode.  It’s an ode to the allure of the check-out woman.  A song about groceries has never sounded so lovelorn.  Lyrically, it has some nice use of unconventional subject and location.  “I’m in love with the queen of the supermarket,” he sings with glee as he describes going through the checkout line.  A scanner beep at the end is a humorous addition.  “What Love Can Do” has a nice rock shuffle.  It’s like a more sedate cousin of “Radio Nowhere” and would make a good single.  “This Life” begins with a “Pet Sounds”-esque nod to Brian Wilson.  The organ and the “ooh, ah” vocals are thick with Beach Boys influence.  It then changes into a more traditional E-Street Band number.  With its wistful, grateful, love-struck tone it almost plays like a sequel to the “Magic” track, “Girls In Their Summer Clothes.” “Good Eye” changes the pace quite well, with Bruce delivering his best blues holler.  It shows him as quite a belter! The track in surprisingly potent, thus it stands out at a strong highlight.  Sadly, “Tomorrow Never Knows” isn’t a cover of the famous Beatles track.  It is instead a competent little acoustic country number.  Bruce definitely feels like experimenting here which is good to hear.  “Life Itself” tells another great story amid a dark, moody backdrop.  The fact that this is the second track with the word “Life” in the title brings to mind his fallen band-mate, Danny Federici.  “Here’s one to your health,” he declares.  Is this a reference to Federici’s cancer struggle?  It’s no doubt hard to lose one of your closest musical partners.

“Kingdom of Days” again sounds like generic-but-capable Springsteen.  It’s a sad song and it won’t win any new fans but it will definitely please the old ones. Musically, the “sing away…” portion of the song resembles Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” That being said, if you read Springsteen’s words, they are somewhat striking in their loving tone.  “Surprise, Surprise” is in similar terrain.  For Springsteen, the track’s sound is a little bland. It doesn’t break any new ground musically but it will still work for his fans.  “The Last Carnival” on the other hand is Springsteen in prime folk mode.  His vivid circus imagery is warm and welcoming.  Sad as the song is, it’s a slice of poetic brilliance.  The background singing only adds to the track’s allure.  The best track on the album however is last.  As a bonus track, he’s added his Golden Globe winning theme to the Mickey Rourke movie, “The Wrestler.”  It’s a song for any underdog and it’s the boss at his absolute best. (“Have you ever seen a one-legged dog makin’ his way down the street?  If You’ve ever seen a one-legged dog then you’ve seen me.”)  It’s a moving piece.  This is folk at its essence.  With this track, Bruce has once again reminded us of his level of mastery.  It’s stunning and demands repeated listens.  The deluxe edition of the album is packaged with a forty-minute, behind-the-scenes DVD about the making of the record.  This version is recommended for any hardcore Springsteen fans.

“Working On A Dream” adds to the boss’ strong catalogue.  It’s not a solidly perfect record, but it’s got a few perfect moments and for that reason, it’s well worth a listen. 

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