Music Review: Springsteen’s Working on a Dream

As with his last release, Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream, set for release next week, leaked to the internet. That isn’t all that surprising given the existence of advance review copies and, among other things, NPR will begin streaming the entire album just before midnight tonight.

working_on-a-dream426As a result of the leak, I had the opportunity to listen to Working on a Dream a few times over the weekend. Like Magic, I’ll hold off on a final verdict until I’ve listened to it more. But I have a variety of general and specific impressions, not all of them positive.

First, unlike Magic and The Rising, the new record isn’t built around any political or social issues. Instead, many of the songs are more personal, looking at aging, loss and, primarily, love.

Second, although it’s would be easy to say a particular cut could fit on one of the last few E Street Band albums (or even the Seeger Sessions work), there is a different sound to this album. For example, it is more heavily orchestrated than prior E Street Band releases. Likewise, some of the background vocals seem to be more from the pop school than what we usually expect from Springsteen and the band.

Third, as usuaal, Springsteen incorporates a variety of styles and influences. Thus, in addition to a couple noted below, the short (barely two minutes) “Tomorrow Never Knows” uses a guitar opening seemingly straight off a Creedence Clearwater Revival tune to introduce its predominantly country shuffle feel.

Undoubtedly, there are what appear to be a few misfires. For example, the lengthy opening track, “Outlaw Pete,” seems a bit strained and almost overwrought. A fable about an extremely young outlaw who later seeks to change his life, it contains a riff that could have come right off Magic but is swamped by orchestration, leaving the music feeling almost like a takeoff on Coldplay’s Viva La Vida.

“Good Eye,” in contrast, sounds much like Nebraska‘s “Reason to Believe” as Springsteen performed it on his Devils and Dust tour: fuzzed up harmonica and distorted vocal built around a blues structure. “Surprise, Surprise” is a song about a birthday, one in which the title word is repeated more than 40 times in three and a half minutes. (Gee, does that mean there was a surprise birthday party?) I’m also somewhat ambivalent about “Queen of the Supermarket,” another orchestrated piece, this one dealing with unrequited love for a supermarket cashier (with some pretty serious feelings about the supermarket itself).

Some songs are more standard E Street Band fare, such as “My Lucky Day” and “Kingdom of Days.” Both are essentially love songs, with the latter even reflecting on aging with lines like “We laugh beneath the covers/And count the wrinkles and the grays.” Also falling squarely in the love song category is “This Life,” with an expansive Beach Boys feel similar to that on Magic’s “The Girls in Their Summer Clothes.” The lyrics are even more spacious than the sound, with lines like “My universe at rest” and “This lonely planet never looked so good.” Just as the songs I consider misfires will garner split opinions, these will too.

“The Last Carnival” is likely the most emotional for fans. It’s a remembrance of Danny Federici, the E Street Band’s organ and accordion player who died of cancer last April. Built around a carnival getting ready to move on to the next town, Springsteen asks “Where have you gone my handsome Billy?” and “Where are you now darling Billy?”. Longtime Springsteen fans will immediately recognize the setting and those lines as referring to “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” a track off 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle that featured Federici’s accordion work. Springsteen sings that the carnival will be “be riding the train without you tonight” and although “The light that was in your eyes is gone away … The thing in you that made me ache is gonna stay.”

I do have a criticism with regard to the song, though. Although it supposedly closes the album, “The Wrestler,” for which Springsteen recently won a Golden Globe award, appears 20 or so seconds later as a “bonus track.” Although that’s a fine tune, the homage to Federici would have carried more impact and meaning had it truly been the last song on the CD.

At bottom, I am not as impressed with Working on a Dream as I initially was with The Rising, Devils and Dust or Magic. But Springsteen’s songs always seem to reveal additional layers on further listening. That’s held true on my first few listens to this release and, thus, my overall impression may change with time. There certainly is enough of merit to make it a decent addition to the E Street canon.

Finally, I want to repeat what I said following the internet release of Magic: If you stumble across the music online, consider this leak nothing more than a preview. There’s no reason or excuse for not buying the CD when it hits the shelves next week. I know I will, even with my mixed feelings toward it.

I don’t see the summer as it wanes
Just a subtle change of light upon your face

“Kingdom of Days,” Bruce Springsteen, Working on a Dream

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