An artist has got to be constantly in a state of becoming --- Bob Dylan
I'll tell you what's the problem with Bruce Springsteen. He's so good at what he does. He sets the bar so high for his records (not to mention his three hour legendary live shows) that you'd think they're impossible for him to top. Take, for example, 1984's Born In The USA, Bruce's top-selling album and possibly the greatest album of the 80's. The E Street Band then went on a recording hiatus for 18 years, till they returned with 2002's The Rising, Bruce's full fledged album with the band. Many critics and fans were skeptical as to whether Bruce could still write and make music that could stand with his previous records like The River, Born To Run, and Darkness On The Edge Of Town. He still could.
The Rising was certainly not his best work, but it was a modern classic. It still is. At a time when America was at its darkest period in its history (Sep 11 aftermath), The Rising provided us with an outlet for hope, reconciliation and renewal of faith. After another successful world tour ('02-'03), Bruce took a break from the band and did Devils & Dust and The Seeger Sessions, and also toured in support of the albums. Then in 2007, came Magic.
Bruce Springsteen had outdone himself yet again. Magic was a musical and lyrical triumph, reminiscent of Born To Run. And though it didn't break any new ground, this record was a long time coming. It gave us a glimpse of America living under the Bush Administration during the past eight years. Magic ranks in my top 5 all-time Bruce Springsteen records.
Less than one and a half years later, Working On A Dream, Bruce's 16th studio record is released. And I'll start by saying it's his most unusual record to date. Firstly, there's no real underlying theme here, as opposed to his previous records--not that's anything wrong with that. And it's not as good as Magic. Not even close. If Magic were a double album, Working On A Dream would probably be the second disc--simply because most the songs on the new record sound like Magic outtakes! Despite this fact, it's no doubt that Bruce has been doing a lot of experimenting on this record. But after listening to it without all these external factors in mind, Working On A Dream is, simply put, a brilliant record.
Most of the songs here were written and recorded right after Magic and during breaks in the Magic tour. Lyrically, they're different because they don't fit the dark theme on Magic. This is in no way, a political record, but if it wasn't for Barack Obama and his historical election victory, Working On A Dream wouldn't have been possible. I'll provide a song-by-song review:
1. Outlaw Pete - This is Bruce's longest opening song; eight minutes to be exact. Epic, in every sense of the word, Bruce channels Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone (the 'Man with the Harmonica' theme), and yes, even Kiss (there's a refrain that sounds exactly like I Was Made For Lovin' You). This is the E Street Band doing a Spagetthi Western musical. Bruce proves he still has the narrative songwriting chops (think Ghost Of Tom Joad).
2. My Lucky Day - Probably the most 'E-Street' sounding tune on this record. Fun, simple and catchy, with lots of guitar--this will be a great opening song for the new tour.
3. Working On A Dream - I can see why Bruce named it as his album title. The lyrics are kinda cliche, and I can certainly do without the really cheesy whistling. This is one of those songs where I actually like the verses more than the choruses. But sometimes, less is more.
4. Queen Of The Supermarket - This sounds nothing like the song title (and what a weird title it is!). Bruce sings about unrequited love and it contains a really strange musical outtro. I found myself liking the lyrics more and more after subsequent listens.
5. What Love Can Do - I'm starting to like this one. Bruce himself said that this was supposed to be a 'love in a time of Bush' mediation. This should have been the first single, in my opinion.
6. This Life - One can't help but notice the similarities between this tune and Girls In Their Summer Clothes. But I love it when Bruce channels The Beach Boys and uses the Phil Spector 'Wall Of Sound'. He also stretches his vocal range here.
7. Good Eye - This is a killer blues tune, with banjo and the now famous bullet mic (listen to the Magic tour version of Reason To Believe and you'll know what I mean). I think that's the reason why they decided not to put Night With The Jersey Devil (also a blues song) on this record.
8. Tomorrow Never Knows - The E Street Band does the Seeger Sessions. A filler that doesn't really belong on the record. But that's not to say I don't particularly like the song.
9. Life Itself - Definitely not something the E Street Band will do. I especially like the 12-string Rickenbacker, Eight Miles High vibe. It's good to know that Bruce is influenced by the Byrds. Another thing worth mentioning is Nils Lofgren playing backward guitar, that sounds like the Beatles' I'm Only Sleeping.
10. Kingdom Of Days - My favorite song on this album. It has a great gospel feel, and it sounds like a hymn you'd sing in church. The lush, beautiful strings give me the chills every time--and then it's over all too fast. This song would have made Roy Orbison proud.
11. Surprise, Surprise - Again (going back to Magic), this is like I'll Work For Your Love, but more heavy on the guitars. Great 60's pop vibe to it.
12. The Last Carnival - Last but not least, the tearjerker of the record. A fitting and very emotional tribute to Danny Federici (God bless him). Could this also be a sequel to Wild Billy's Circus Story? The song opens with an accordian, played by Danny's son, Jason, followed by Bruce's voice and his acoustic guitar. Towards the end, everything stops--and the E Street choir comes in and fades out slowly...
13. The Wrestler - Though a bonus track, it fits quite perfectly as the last song on the album. The lyrics are better understood after watching the film. It has already won a Golden Globe for Best Original Song, but got snubbed at the Oscars nomination, which is just plain silly. This is one of the best songs Bruce has written in the past decade.
Bruce Springsteen has been constantly experimenting and trying out different kinds of stuff over the past years, and his efforts have paid off. One thing I also like about Working On A Dream is its production. It's obvious upon listening that it surpasses Magic in terms of sound quality, despite its dense orchestral arrangements. I guess Brendan O'Brien has finally learned his lesson! It'll be interesting to see what new songs the band will play on the tour and how they'll rework the arrangements onstage.
To close, Working On A Dream is Bruce Springsteen being happy and having fun (finally!). He's at a point in life where he, and many Americans, can finally see the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel (thanks to Obama). Just think about how many artists that age who are still making great new music and doing tours. This is truly a great time to be a Springsteen fan.
Working On A Dream is dedicated to Danny Federici (1950 - 2008).
Album Rating: 4/5