DREAM ON Bruce Springsteen

The Boss delivers a stirring exploration
of love in the face of time and space itself.

BY ERIC
SCHUMACHER-RASMUSSEN

Working on a Dream is the most confounding album Bruce
Springsteen’s ever released-a lush, orchestrated, collection of pop and rock
songs whose profound statements swirl beneath the music rather than float on
its surface. Musically, it’s a logical extension of the road he’s been
traveling since he started working with producer Brendan O’Brien on 2002’s The Rising and continued on with 2007’s Magic. But where The Rising was explicitly tied to 9/11 and Magic explored the state of the union even in its non-overtly
political songs (am I the only one who kept hearing “You’ll Be Coming Down” as
Bush left Washington?), Working on a
Dream
‘s concerns are more eternal-it’s not so much a meditation on “love in the time of Bush,”
as Springsteen himself called “What Love Can Do,” as it is an exploration of
love in the face of time and space itself, a “big string of shining stars,
rusting in red out of arms,” as he sings on “This Life.”

And while it
carries echoes of all of his past work-from the glockenspiel in the title cut
harkening back to “Born to Run” to the bonus track “The Wrestler,” which, save
for its synth intro, would have sounded at home on The Ghost of Tom Joad-it’s also unlike anything he’s ever done.
Minus the opener, the eight-minute “Outlaw Pete,” it’s the kind of record Steve
Van Zandt has said he always wanted his boss to make, full of concise pop
melodies, rich harmonies, and hooks straight out of the mid-1960s. Sonically,
its debts are most deeply owed to the Beach Boys, Turtles, Byrds, and, on the
reckless and raucous “My Lucky Day,” the Rolling Stones.

That this album
is more about music than lyrics is made clear from the album’s opening notes,
the locomotive chugging of cellos that kick off epic “Outlaw Pete.” The song
begins as a comic tall tale-by the time he was six months old, Pete had spent
three months in jail for robbing banks in his “diapers and little bare baby
feet”-and ends as a reckoning of our inability to escape the sins of the past.
What it is mostly, though, is an Ennio Morricone film score writ small, Roy
Bittan’s barrelhouse piano and
Springsteen’s reverb-heavy guitar working in concert with strings to create
a sonic spaghetti western. The real payoff comes in the song’s denouement,
bells ringing and Springsteen’s harmonica playing virtually the same notes as
Charles Bronson did in Once Upon a Time
in the West
before the full band and strings come crashing back in.

It’s pretentious
and overblown, to be sure, but then again, so was “Jungleland,” and “Outlaw
Pete” works nearly as well. (That blowhards like Bob Lefsetz are trying to drum
up controversy by claiming the song’s melody is a ripoff of Kiss’s “I Was Made
for Loving You” misses the point of the song, which isn’t about melody but
orchestration, and of Kiss, which was never about music anyway.) Still, it’s a
weighty song with which to open an album, and “My Lucky Day” blows away
pretention with the most straightforward rock on the album and one of the most
unabashedly optimistic songs Springsteen’s ever written. The dirty guitars, Soozie Tyrell’s sweet
fiddle line, and Steve Van Zandt’s ragged harmony vocal are the antithesis of
“Outlaw Pete”‘s studied perfection.

As orchestrated
and ornamented as most of Working on a
Dream
is, it’s driven by a band playing live. Springsteen recorded the core
tracks live with Bittan, bassist Garry Tallent and drummer Max Weinberg before
adding overdubs to flesh out the productions, and it shows. That’s one of the
things that makes the album sound so deceptively simple on first listen; rarely
have such layered arrangements sounded so effortless. From “My Lucky Day”
forward, it’s a wild, not-so-innocent ride through examinations of eternal love
(the meditative “Kingdom of Days” and “This Life”), transient life (“The
Wrestler”; blues shouter “Good Eye”; and a heartbreaking acoustic tribute to late E Street organist Danny
Federici, “The Last Carnival,” which ends in a soaring, wordless chorale), and,
lest we get too lofty, the supermarket.

“Queen of the
Supermarket” is one of the sweetest, strangest songs Springsteen’s ever
recorded, a stroll through a world where “aisles and aisle of dreams await you”
and “the cool promise of ecstasy fills the air.” Never has grocery shopping
sounded so alluring, with a lilting melody and strings carrying us to the
counter where the object of the narrator’s fantasy awaits. But something else
lies beneath the bright lights and materialist fantasy; the singer catches a
smile from the cashier at song’s end that “blows this whole fuckin’ place
apart,” and the profanity shocks us out of our reverie, reminding us that all
of it-the market, the fantasy, the checkout girl’s job-is a dead-end. The
guitars and harmonies dissolve into legato strings and the beeps of a UPC
scanner that sounds more like an EKG monitor, another version of “wounded, but
not even dead.”

And while
Springsteen reckons with death literally on “The Last Carnival”-the first time
he sings “we’ll be ridin’ the train without you tonight” in concert, you can
bet there won’t be a dry eye in the house-and on “This Life,” whose chorus
refers not just to this life but “then the next,” he only sounds fearsome when
he faces up to the death of the spirit and of faith in “Life Itself,” asking
“Why do the things that we treasure most slip away and die/ ‘til to the music
we grow deaf and to God’s beauty blind?” He doesn’t have the answer, and only
finds the antidote, as always, not in the abstract but the human, clinging
desperately to his love as he sings “I can’t make it without you.” Again,
though, it’s the music that makes a more powerful statement than the lyrics. A
sinister, Byrds-y 12-string sizzles throughout and is joined on the bridge by a
backwards guitar solo reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

He
also steals the title of that song for another of the album’s tracks, one
that also shares the Beatles’ tune’s imploration to live in the present, as
death is always around the corner. A bouncy country shuffle, “Tomorrow Never
Knows” and the birthday tune “Surprise, Surprise” offer the breeziest
moments on what initially appears to be a pretty breezy collection.

But
like Born in the U.S.A. almost 25
years ago, Working on a Dream is an
immediately accessible collection of pop songs whose depth is belied by their
simple charms.

[Photo Credit:
Danny Clinch]

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