Review Summary: I turn back for a moment to catch a smile
Bruce Springsteen’s current late-career winning record may be one that’s completely unmatched by any other singer-songwriter of the past fifty years. Springsteen has been making records for 36 of those years, and, disregarding patchy releases throughout the 90s, has been consistently crafting rousing works that both entertain and move. His career has seen Vietnam, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and 9/11, and Springsteen has had a record to mark or at least pay indirect tribute to every occasion. Now, his home country has seen quite a historic event occur in the past month or so that scarcely needs an explanation, and Springsteen has wasted no time releasing his own work in tribute. Perhaps it’s due to the times, perhaps it’s because Springsteen’s hot as sh
it on a streak that contains near-classics such as the 9/11-addressing The Rising
and the recently released riff-monster Magic
, but either way, his newest, Working on a Dream
, may be one of the better things he’s ever done.
Don’t hold this hyperbolic claim to premature hype (can’t forget that Obama rally/“Working on a Dream” premiere) and overexcitement, though. Working on a Dream
is a focused and strangely lush record, chock-full with layered ballads and rockers with production that is rather reminiscent of Phil Spector’s famous ‘wall-of-sound’ technique, and also of the overdub-happy sound of Springsteen’s greatest album, Born To Run
. Working on a Dream
opens with a track that borrows the most from that classic, an eight minute monster titled “Outlaw Pete”, which is probably larger and more primed for arenas than anything else Springsteen’s written in the past decade. Opening with chugging cellos, keyboard flourishes, some guitar, and the Boss’s time-weary yet earnest and poignant vocals, “Outlaw Pete” makes everybody instantly aware of its hugeness. The track grows to include organs, harmonicas, and background vocals, impressive guitar leads courtesy of long time E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, and crescendos and tempo changes galore. While this sounds slightly overstuffed, producer Brendan O’Brien manages to keep everything sounding clear and huge, never letting the track from becoming too murky. Starting out an album with its longest track is reasonably unconventional and is definitely a risk for Springsteen: he’s no secret to eight or nine-minute monsters, but they’re usually placed as bookends. Here, “Outlaw Pete” works because it’s a great indication of the pleasures to be found inside the rest of Working on a Dream
, while also standing out as an impressive track by itself. It’s an excellent opener to a completely superb album.
From there, Working on a Dream
is a mixed bag musically, ranging from slow-paced ballads to Roy Orbison-aping epics to hair-raising blues-rockers. “Working on a Dream” stands out amongst the album’s upper half, being a rich and creamy mix of the chocolate of Phil Spector-ish production, the candy of sunny faux-Beach Boys melodies, and the crunch of guitar leads and a positive and forward-thinking atmosphere that’s unabashedly traditional Springsteen. It’s one of those tracks that’s so sunny and confident, but not to the point of being annoying, that it’s almost guaranteed to raise some spirits. Instantly following it is “Queen of the Supermarket”, which stands along “Outlaw Pete” and “This Life”, which is also a poppy and triumphant song, as Working on a Dream
’s more epic tracks. Describing a narrator’s obsession with a checkout girl that has a smile “that blows this whole fuc
king place apart”, “Queen of the Supermarket” is a perfectly orchestrated pop song that swells with gusto during the choruses and builds up forlorn emotion in its crevices. This song is just as rich as “Outlaw Pete” and “Working on a Dream”, and its overstuffed use of a variety of instruments--filled with the usual dressings such as strings, piano, glockenspiel, organs, and striking guitar leads--never gets too sweet that it sours.
However, if you’re getting a little worried that Working on a Dream
is starting to sound a little too
big, be prepared to be relieved. Springsteen scales back on tracks such as the fast-paced and positive “What Love Can Do”, which strangely sounds like the Hootie and the Blowfish with better vocals, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, which is the definition of sunny beach music, and the poignant “The Last Carnival”. The latter is easily the best track of Working on a Dream
, being a soft acoustic track reminiscent of Springsteen’s excellent Devils & Dust
that doubles as a heartfelt tribute to former E Street Band organ player Danny Federici, who passed on in 2008. Springsteen sings in his lowest registers for “The Last Carnival”, and sounds like he’s choking up as he’s singing: it’s an emotional effect that’s one of this album’s more memorable. On the other side of the musical spectrum is the three-minute bruiser “Good Eye”, which is Working on a Dream
’s only straightforward rocker, and it’s a rocker in the term’s loosest definition at that. “Good Eye” is a fast paced track featuring some of Springsteen’s rawest and expressive vocals since “Radio Nowhere”, yet the song features no huge guitar riff: it seems to be mostly driven by…harmonica" Yep, “Good Eye”, as raucous as it is, is propelled by a thudding beat and a repetitive harmonica sample playing in the background, and is, of course, fleshed out by some banjos, piano, and other instruments. It proves to be one of the more interesting songs of the bunch, even if it isn’t featuring some quality Van Zandt riffs.
Listening to Bruce Springsteen’s 16th work, it’s almost impossible to find anything really wrong
with it. There’s a few songs, like “Kingdom of Days”, that seem to get lost in the mix of all the other great tracks, but upon further examination, you realize that these songs are just as good or even better than anything else on Working on a Dream
. It’s definitely a testament to Springsteen’s immense talents that he can produce such an unbelievable album at such a state in his career, instead of just recycling through old ideas like other bands and artists at such points. Working on a Dream
manages to simultaneously define the past eight years and their up and downs, and also define the present, with hopes of an exciting new future. And, because of that, it succeeds completely. It seems cliché to say it, but I’ve got to: the Boss is back.