Trying To Get To You

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Review: Bruce Springsteen - Working On A Dream

Sometimes, I think, it’s got to be hard to be Bruce Springsteen. Even as he nears 60, there are many, many great expectations placed upon his music. While Dylan fans never know what to expect and are thrilled when Bob releases an album good enough to put his 80’s output further in the rearview mirror, hard-core Bruce fans expect something that is more than just good – at our core, we still hope and expect that he’ll deliver his best music yet. Not Born To Run II mind you (although I’m sure there are some fans who’d be thrilled with that), but something that powerfully and intensely illuminates and deepens our own lives and experiences – like a combination of The River and Tunnel Of Love. And Springsteen has been so remarkably consistent throughout his career, with such an incredible body of work that it almost seems unfair to judge him against his past, but fair or not, that’s how the great ones are judged.

I’ve been trying to write a review of his new album, Working On A Dream, for the past week. But I have found myself confounded by it. On one level, it contains some of the most beautiful music he’s ever made, grand and orchestral, with swirling string sections, stately melodies and symphonic pop that goes in directions that Bruce has never quite gone before. But on another level, at least half the songs feel somewhat hollow at their core. The resonance of Springsteen’s greatest music – where the song hits you right where you live, in the most authentic part of your being, well, in that context, the tank is running low here. Somehow, Bruce Springsteen, an artist who has made his career subverting form for content, has made a record that uses form to disguise the fact that most of his new songs aren’t great.

You can hear what’s wrong with Working On A Dream on “Outlaw Pete,” an Ennio Morricone influenced tall tale that isn’t funny enough to be taken satirically, nor is it affecting enough to be taken seriously as an epic. The music soars at moments, but it never fully lifts off. It’s stuck in some sort of weird middle ground, and at 8 minutes, it goes on for about four minutes longer than necessary. It’s all very interesting – interesting and a little cerebral as opposed to viscerally powerful the way great Springsteen music is. “Queen of the Supermarket” is another interesting song – Bruce being enraptured by the sensuality of the truly super market, and falling in love with the cashier. It occurs as a clichéd parody until the last verse, when Bruce drops an F-bomb that brings it all back to reality, and you end up wondering whether the whole song is brilliant – or just a very interesting songwriting device by a master writer. If you have to ask…

“My Lucky Day,” “This Life,” “Good Eye,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” "Surprise, Surprise," “What Love Can Do,” “Life Itself…” none of these songs are bad. Hell, If Tom Petty wrote “My Lucky Day,” it’d be heralded as a classic. There are lovely melodies, exuberant choruses, plaintive sentiment…and it just doesn’t doesn’t work at Springsteen’s usual level.

Only on two songs, “Kingdom Of Days” and “The Last Carnival,” does Springsteen hit the levels we're accustomed to. “Kingdom Of Days” is a soaring mid-tempo reverie of a love and life that is made more resonant by the consciousness of its finiteness. The towering melody, lovingly detailed lyrics and especially the gorgeously romantic instrumental bridge are the sound of peace, gratitude and acceptance – it’s as though Springsteen has finally arrived in the spot he wrote about in "Born To Run;" where he's gotten to that place he's wanted to go, and is walking in the sun.

“The Last Carnival,” a meditation on the death of founding E Street Band organist Danny Federici, is an out and out Springsteen classic. Over a simple guitar riff, gorgeous background vocals that sound like they’re out of a Simon & Garfunkel song, and lyrics that recreate the circus life of “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” from The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle, the song is a tear-jerking elegy to a fallen comrade that transcends mere sentimentality. It’s a sublime love song.

Musically, the album showcases Springsteen’s love and exploration of the sound of the white pop/rock of his adolescence. The Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Byrds, the Righteous Brothers and Roy Orbison are all present and accounted for. It's a sound that works well, but the lushness and prettiness of the sonic template doesn't always feel a match for Springsteen's grittiness. Where Springsteen's soul sound always feels like can extension of the man himself, these pop sounds occur more like a coat he's trying on temporarily.

Working On A Dream is a good album. Sometimes it is very good. But Bruce Springsteen is capable of making a better one. Perhaps that is harsh. I consider it a compliment. When no one expects greatness from Bruce Springsteen anymore, he’ll truly be finished.

24 comments:

Todd Steinhilber said...

Excellent review. I haven't heard the full record yet. I have heard the singles "Working on a Dream" and "My Lucky Day". I hear what you're saying and I understand why it took an extra week to mull over what you had to say on the subject.

However, I have learned over time, that I usually need to live with a new Springsteen record for a bit before it all kind of makes sense. Before it all fits. Maybe that's just me. I know that even in my own writing, sometimes there are aspects of meaning that are not initially apparent, even to me. You never know. There is always more to discover. So, with someone like Springsteen, he has earned my patience and I haven't been disappointed yet.

I know where you're coming from. I agree that when there are not great expectations for him, he will be done. But bear in mind that the only way to be great is to lead. That includes having your ass hanging out at times. So, if he is now walking in the sun, that's fine. I like the singles and now you have me chomping at the bit to hear "The Last Carnival". Cheers Ben!

KG said...

I'm listening to the album right now for the first time. I like it a lot, but agree that it's certainly not Bruce's best work.

The thing is, where so many other legends of his era are on their 10th "Greatest Hits" tour, he's still producing relevant music (if not his best work, still relevant and strong).

If you see him play live on the next tour and he plays 3-4 songs from this album, it will be 3-4 more GOOD new songs than most of his peers have released in two decades. For that, he should be lauded...

John said...

I can't wrap my head around this album...and it's not from the lack of trying. I give him credit for trying something different. For me, the most interesting piece of the puzzle is the production. None of these songs really move me, I'm hoping they will down the road. Even with its abysmal production, Human Touch and Lucky Town had better songs than this album, they were just arranged and produced in a way that did them little justice and has aged those records beyond their years.

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Calogero said...

Nice moon on the cover!

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