If 2007’s “Magic” was Bruce Springsteen as angry, middle-aged man, raging against Bush’s failed policies, an unjust and unholy war, and the ravages of time, his new album “Working on a Dream” is a much gentler, personal reflection on life, love and loss. With few exceptions, it is a deeply personal collection, replete with lushly romantic imagery, accompanied by some of the loveliest melodies he’s ever crafted. Although Bruce Springsteen’s album, “Working on a Dream,” isn’t officially out until Jan. 27, it is streaming now on NPR’s website.
Sure there are the usual characters– “Outlaw Pete” and “The Queen of the Supermarket”– but there are more “we’s” and “I’s” than we’ve heard from Springsteen in a long time. This is a man who sees himself surrounded by blessings (a word he drops several times in the lyrics). Not everything’s perfect-not by a long shot-but his glass is not only half-full, there are times the damn thing threatens to spill over. Even death, which comes much more frequently to those around him these days as he nears 60, is greeted with a sense of gratitude for a shared life and passion on the heartbreakingly beautiful, “The Last Carnival,” a bittersweet tribute to E Street keyboardist Danny Federici, who died last April-the first member of the band to do so in its more than 35 years together.
Produced by Brendan O’Brien, this is a pop album, not a rock album-although it is overwhelmingly up-tempo. Springsteen’s classic “Born to Run” album and much of “Magic” (especially the gorgeous “Girls in their Summer Clothes”) used Phil Spector’s famed Wall of Sound as their sonic template. Just as sure-footedly, “Working on a Dream’s” songs reference the ’60s melodies and harmonies of The Byrds and Brian Wilson, with a healthy dose of Spectorian grandeur thrown in. Much of the instrumentation is acoustic and there are more strings than on any previous E Street Band album.
Don’t look for sweeping political statements or grand personal drama here: no one goes down to the river yearning for redemption or wakes up with the sheets soaking wet with a freight train running through the middle of their head, but that’s not a bad thing. Instead, as in the uplifting, buoyant “This Life,” Springsteen finds salvation in the most modest of moves: “This life and then the next/I finger the hem of your dress/My universe at rest.” Springsteen is the rare artist whose small gestures often resonate as powerfully, albeit from a different height, than his anthems.
On his website, Springsteen wrote that “All the songs [on ‘Working’ were written quickly, we usually used one of our first few takes, and we all had a blast making this one from beginning to end.” And it shows. There’s a vibrancy to the tracks that often gets scrubbed clean if there are too many takes. Additionally, as the album title states, there’s almost a dream-like quality to many of the songs.
“Working on a Dream” won’t stand as one of Springsteen’s masterpieces, but it’s not supposed to. There’s nothing about it that seems labored. It’s light, but, with a few exceptions, never lightweight.
Following is a track-by-track breakdown:
“Outlaw Pete”: Springsteen’s longest song in more than 25 years, “Outlaw Pete” clocks in at nearly eight minutes. An often majestic Spaghetti Western (as oxymoronic as that may sound) spun around Outlaw Pete, who was born bad (“At six months old, he’d done six months in jail”) and stays that way. Pete kills a bounty hunter who delivers one of the album’s few profound statements: “We cannot undo these things we’ve done.” Intriguing shifting tempos united by nice organ work by Roy Bittan.
“You’re My Lucky Day”: One of the most exuberant tunes Springsteen has ever recorded. An upbeat, joyous song about how, despite all the past hardships and tribulations, a loser finally becomes the big winner in love: “Well, I lost all the other bets I made/Honey, you’re my lucky day.” How typical of Springsteen to find a new way to express one of the oldest sentiments in song. The fresh delivery is as intoxicating as the relentlessly happy song.
“Working on a Dream”: Springsteen debuted this mid-tempo slow burner at an Obama rally days before the election. Nice message, but it’s musically and lyrically slight. Of course, as is his wont, Springsteen can’t give himself over totally-reaching the dream isn’t a sure bet by any stretch, and the obstacles between the dream and reality are vast, but hope serves as a mighty bridge.
“Queen of the Supermarket”: It would be hard to take this song seriously if it weren’t for the fact that Springsteen delivers it with a complete and total lack of irony. The mid-tempo ballad finds Springsteen waxing rhapsodically about a supermarket “where aisles and aisles of dreams await you” and a check-out girl, whose singular charms go seemingly unnoticed by others. Music swelling around him, the song builds to a climax as Springsteen delivers these lyrics as seriously and earnestly as any he’s ever sung: “As I lift my groceries into my car/I turn for back for a moment and catch a smile that blows this whole fucking place apart.” It’s an action that can mean nothing or it can mean the world, similar to the line in “Born in the USA’s” “Working on the Highway”: “One day I looked straight at her and she looked straight back.” Listeners will love it or hate it, but it won’t wear well.
“What Love Can Do”: A defiant, mid-tempo rocker with a staccato beat about love among the ruins. Despite personal tribulations and worldly strife, we can survive the odds together.
“This Life”: Wow! Springsteen does Brian Wilson proud. Awash in shimmering harmonies, Wilson-esque keyboards, and rich, orchestral textures, “Life” is a cross between a Beach Boys song and “Happy,” from Springsteen’s box set of outtakes, “Tracks.” No doubt, no fear, just all the joy and contentment these earthbound lovers can find. The gloriously-layered pop outro is unlike anything Springsteen has ever done. Not as perfect as “Girls in their Summer Clothes,” but close.
“Good Eye”: A swampy blues and boogie rocker wrapped in fuzz and distortion that sounds inspired by Springsteen’s complete reworking of “Reason to Believe” from the “Magic” tour. He’s channeling Robert Johnson on this one. Full of field hoops and hollers, “Eye” is more about tone and feel than an actual song, but is enjoyable for its rawness and the infectious fun Springsteen is having.
“Tomorrow Never Knows”: A mid-tempo, acoustic chugger that is one of Springsteen’s most Dylan-esque tunes (and that’s saying a lot), especially lyrically and in Springsteen’s phrasing. Country-tinged, gentle song about the evanescence of love and time. Could almost be an outtake from “The Seeger Sessions.”
“Life Itself”: A trippy, at times psychedelic, guitar-driven exploration of love. In classic Springsteen fashion, the ties that bind don’t come easy and they don’t come free. Although he plaintively sings “I can’t make it without you,” the real world tries to tear lovers asunder. Ends in a lovely benediction to life itself.
“Kingdom of Days”: Springsteen as full-on romantic. “Kingdom” is a mid-tempo beauty about being happy right where you are. In one of his most plain-spoken declarations on record, he sings: “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I do. You whisper, then prove it then prove it, then prove it to me, baby, do.” Later, he and his partner “laugh beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays.” It’s a happy ending that his yearning characters in “Born to Run” could have only dreamt for themselves. See, the story worked out after all.Musically, it’s redolent of “Your Own Worst Enemy.”
“Surprise, Surprise”: A pure pop confection that could have been written by the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. Lightweight lyrics about a birthday-this sounds like it may be about one of his kids– are saved by the shimmery, ringing guitars, soaring melody, Max Weinberg’s steady drumming, and overall jangly tone. A pure homage to the ’60s.
“The Last Carnival”: For any longtime fan of the E Street Band, it’s impossible to listen to this simple, acoustic ballad and not cry. It’s the story of two daredevils, Springsteen and Federici, now separated. “We won’t be dancing together on the high wire, facing the lions with you by my side anymore,” Springsteen sings, but ultimately, he must march on. “We’ll be riding the train without you tonight, the train keeps on moving,” his sings, his voice crackling with emotion at many points. A fitting, final chapter to “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” the song with which Federici was most associated. “Carnival” features Federici’s son on accordion and a ragtag choir at the end that gives Danny a beautiful send off.
“The Wrestler”: With an ethereal, dreamy opening that gets lopped off in the movie that it was written for, this song fits sonically perfectly with the rest of the album although it’s listed as a bonus track instead of the main body of work. Film protagonist The Ram’s life can be completely summed by the line, “I always leave with less than I had before.” Simple, spare guitar ballad that won the Golden Globe last week and is a shoo-in for the Oscar.