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

Working On A Dream has all the best qualities of his previous three albums

RATING:  4 / 5 stars

By Chris Moore:

I have to get this out there before I begin:  I have a bias against producer Brendan O’Brien.  I have cringed at the sight of his production credits ever since he took the lead on Rebel, Sweetheart, the Wallflowers’ flat-sounding follow-up to their amazing Red Letter Days album.

That being said, the time for me to forget that association is well past due.

Working On A Dream sounds like you would expect it to sound after Bruce Springsteen’s previous three albums.  And yet I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense.  Rather, it plays like an amalgamation of all the best qualities of his recent work without any of the pitfalls.

Purpose flowed for Springsteen following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the result was a concept album.  On The Rising, there is a sense of “purpose,” to quote a term he used in his recent Rolling Stone interview.  Then there came Devils and Dust, Springsteen’s stripped-down solo effort.  It lacked the production luster of The Rising — rubbed the edges purposely raw, to be more precise — but it was evidence of an artist going back to his roots.  This became even more apparent when he released an album of folk covers called The Seeger Sessions a year later.  I recall having mixed feelings when I reviewed Devils and Dust in 2005, feeling particularly strongly that the album had been overrated.  I still maintain that.

And yet, I’m happy he recorded that album, because I hear echoes of it here.  There are moments on Working On A Dream where you can hear him let go, usually vocally or while playing harmonica.  For those brief moments, the song doesn’t need to be perfect — it needs to feel emotional and real.

So, this new record has the sense of purpose that emanates from The Rising, and there is a maturity only possible after Devils and Dust.  The third predecessor, released in 2007, is Magic.  This is my favorite Springsteen album by far, largely because I enjoy every track time and time again.  There is a pop/rock sensibility on this album that I loved instantly, and I have returned to Magic far more often than any other album he has released recently.

Well, I think Working On A Dream has captured that sensibility as well.  Only time will tell, but there is a variety and vitality to the tracks that I am far from exhausting after five listens in the first twelve hours of owning this album.  Rolling Stone has gone so far as to give it the five-star nod.  I’m not convinced.  A solid four stars?  Absolutely!

The album opens with a somewhat unusual choice, an eight minute track titled “Outlaw Pete.”  Immediately, I can’t help but hear the country/folk tradition that Springsteen has paid homage to recently — with a distinctly E-Street Band rock’n roll edge and beat to it, of course.  I was skeptical at first, but this tale of a toddler who “at six months old [had] done three months in jail” keeps your interest until the final refrain of “Can you hear me?  Can you hear me?”

Fittingly, the album closes with “The Last Carnival,” another character tale, this one about a character named Billy.  Maybe it’s just the Dylan fan in me, but I hear a country/western nod in that name, one which was an integral aspect of Dylan’s soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (the same soundtrack that spawned “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” a simpler but similarly  morbid and bittersweet song).

“My Lucky Day” is fast and fun.  The third and title track lumbers along as it opens, Garry Tallent unwinding a great bass line, and works up to a classic Springsteen vocal on the chorus.

There really is no way to take a song titled “Queen of the Supermarket” seriously until you have heard it.  Springsteen transforms the supermarket into a breeding ground for fantasy and poetic descriptions of life, love, and – of course – dreams.  I found myself wondering where the logical conclusion to the song would fall.  I didn’t want them to get together; that would be too contrived.  But I also didn’t want him to leave unsatisfied.  The final lines of the final verse? “As I lift my groceries into my cart, I turn back for a moment and catch a smile that blows this whole fucking place apart.”  It certainly surprised me to hear a swear in a Springsteen song, but it is indeed the perfect ending.

Well, that and the outro that comes complete with synthesized sounds reminiscent of a scanner in a grocery store checkout lane.

The album doesn’t really start until the fifth track.  “What Love Can Do” has it all – cool acoustic guitar strumming, moments of scorching electric guitar, great bass line, catchy beat, and a nice vocal arrangement.  Having mentioned vocal arrangements, it’s difficult not to acknowledge the Beach Boys-esque opening of the next song, “This Life.”  If Magic‘s “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” garnered allusions to Brian Wilson’s work, then this track certainly deserves a comparison.

The album changes direction a bit as “Good Eye” delivers rough vocals and a Devils and Dust-esque harmonica riff.  “Tomorrow Never Knows” (no, not the Beatles song; far from it, in fact!) is the most stripped-down effort on the album and perhaps the most pleasant and soothing.  Springsteen capitalizes on that feeling by following up with his dreamy sounding, poetic “Life Itself.”  Fittingly, the Working On A Dream booklet is — either purposely or not — set up to feature the lyrics to these two songs side by side, the text over a background picture of Springsteen lying in a field, classic Telecaster in hand, fast asleep.

“Kingdom of Days” is one of my favorites on the album, if only for the fact that it is one of the least formulaic, forced love songs that I have heard in some time.  It is cheesy without being too saccharine.

The opening progression of “Surprise, Surprise” reminds me of Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy.”  It progresses from there into a song that is equally as catchy and as hopeful as that classic Wilson tune.

You are in for a not-so-unexpected surprise after the final notes of “The Last Carnival,” as “The Wrestler” fades in and begins.  This is the title track to the Mickey Rourke film that has earned Bruce Springsteen some attention recently.  This is, of course, in addition to the attention he will be receiving for his half time show performance at Super Bowl XLIII.  And he just released a greatest hits album exclusively at Wal-Mart a couple months ago…  Sound like perfect timing?  This writer thinks so.

And I also think it is a good time to be Bruce Springsteen fan.  He has released three great albums in this decade alone.

And now, less than two years after Magic, he has released a fourth.

This is one in a series of acoustic cover songs, original music, and free mp3 downloads here on the Laptop Sessions Music Video Blog.

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