Album Review: Bruce Springsteen – Working on a Dream

[Columbia; 2009]

The day following the last of three Bruce Springsteen concerts at Giants Stadium, his fans and the media speculated if it was his last show in New Jersey, ever. Conspicuously, at the end of the near four-hour set at Harley Davidson’s 105th Anniversary in Milwaukee, the final date of the Magic tour, the Boss yelled out “we’ll see ya soon, we’re just gettin’ started”. The Boss didn’t lie. A month later, a follow up to 2007’s excellent Magic, was announced. Springsteen hasn’t seen this level of productivity since the very beginning of his career, in 1973. Working with Brendan O’ Brien, who has produced all of Springsteen’s 2000s output, the Boss prepped some basic tracks, and finished the album during breaks in his extensive touring schedule.

Now Springsteen, despite being an international superstar, can still be as ambitious as he wants, and opens Working on a Dream with “Outlaw Pete”, an 8 minute epic that is one of the best songs he’s written in years. Swirling strings, Tommy-like calls of “can you hear me?” and the tale of a man’s life from birth to death. The song is a 21st century counterpart to The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. Elsewhere, other experiments like the bluesy harmonica and funky electric piano cries of “Good Eye” fit right alongside that bullet microphone that the Boss used on the Devils and Dust and Magic tours, often during “Reason to Believe”. Here it works perfectly alongside other E-Streeters’ harmonic vocals. Other surprises include “Queen of the Supermarket”, a tale of a crush on the cashier at the local mart. Its whimsical nature traces back to the early days of Springsteen, where his lyrics would often go after young crushes and fantasies about women. And even more of a surprise, the Boss drops a rare F-bomb next to Patti Scalifa’s vocals.

Elsewhere, Springsteen takes advantage of this new E Street sound, and on songs like “This Life” he sings clearer and in much more of a pop manner than he ever has. The album has one major song that holds up like the others, and it’s the title track. Mostly its because his voice doesn’t sound as strong as it does on other songs, but Max Weinberg and Garry Tallent sound better than they have in years. “My Lucky Day” is Springsteen’s best ’80s hit that didn’t come out in the ’80s, led by his wild vocal tradeoffs with Steven Van Zant in the chorus, as well as a textbook Clarence Clemmons solo.

The record makes a downward ascent to the end, with “Kingdom of Days” discussing an elderly couple who have lived a great life together, the very fun “Surprise, Surprise”, which talks about a very happy birthday, and then the slowly meandering “The Last Carnival”. The song could be interpreted two ways, either as a sequel to the classic “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” or as a tribute to the late Danny Federici, who recorded some parts of the album before his death. The carnival in the song packs up and leaves town, while the character longs of being with “handsome Billy” at the carnival again. It’s a somewhat sad but hopeful end to this record. Danny will be in all of our memories, and this song reminds us of the fun he had in the band.

Now if you consider “The Wrestler” as part of the album, and not just a bonus track, the album is fully complete. Springsteen wrote the song for the movie of the same name, but it fits him and the band perfectly. Despite all the hardship of a 30 year career, including loss of a very close friend, they still carry on, as they always have. Age is no obstacle for the E Street Band and its ringmaster. He’s not afraid to let you know, he’s just going to keep working on new dreams.