Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Right on Track, Working on a Dream

An advance copy of Working on a Dream slipped into my mail box today. Exactly the excuse I needed to re-start this blog again. I realize I have been absent for a couple of months. A thing or two changed in my private life, things which are a happy distraction away from the Internet. Keeping up Boss Tracks in the way I did was time consuming, a luxury that only a single man can allow himself. I'll try to get things back on track, be it on a slowed down pace. Seems a waste to let all the work I had up till now go to waste.

Working on a Dream comes hot off the heels of the Magic tour. In advance press releases Springsteen had already explained that the album was born out of the excitement of that tour. Springsteen wanted to channel that excitement into the studio with tracks recorded in between dates and finished after the tour. Considering the schedule of the Magic tour and the events that followed, that notion alone makes the album a tour the force of sorts. Those who followed the tour closely will have noticed how that tour evolved from an angry burst of R&R exorcism of Bush's administration and the damage that did to America to a celebration of life and the following the tragic death of Dan Federici. Near the tail end of the tour that celebration was injected with a large dose of hope when Springsteen aligned himself closer to the Obama campaign. It is that energy that finds its way into his latest serving.

Working on a Dream is an album of mixed blessings. Like most fans I'm exited that there's new material the Boss is going to tour behind. But like a lot of those fans, I'm not sure what to make of this album. I've always been the type of fan who's admired his craftsmanship. In my mind Springsteen's lyrics were his forte. His economic cinematic portraits of America and his vivid sketches of human relationships were in my mind without peer. Influenced by Flannery O'Conner and other, Springsteen lyrics were short stories set to music with an uncanny eye for detail and the complexities of life. Springsteen's best lyrics, like Brilliant Disguise, Used Cars or You're Missing never compromised those complexities. This album, unfortunately, does. Though the album's lush production and graceful melodies breathe an hopeful, carefree and happy Springsteen dealing with his own mortality and the value of love and life, the lyrics never reach the level we've grown accustomed. The title track is a prime example of this. Never before was there a Springsteen song that breathed hope without reserve or fear like the first single of the album. Breezy and catchy the song sticks like bubble gum on your sneakers. While the song is nice enough to whistle along to when feeling down, it misses the double layers and complexities to make a real connection to our daily challenges.

More songs suffer from underdevelopment of the lyrics. The opening track Outlaw Pete has the sound of grandeur. In quick passing it seems a Jungleland with a Morricone twist. Yet the song's clumsy comedy and likewise metaphors keep it from epic status. Something similar happens with Queen of the Supermarket, a rather akward tale about a crush on a checkout girl. While the arrangement is exceptionally subtle and graceful for a Springsteen song, it fails to hit mark, it doesn't become another Sandy, while the music promises just that. In short, I haven't been this ambivalent towards a Springsteen album since Human Touch and Lucky Town. Working on a Dream seems a photo negative of those two offerings. Where those '92 albums offered us some of Springsteen's best songs on relationship packaged in a dismal and uninspired production, his last goes the other way around.

Because of its lush production however, Working on a Dream is much easier to digest. Set apart from his impressive catalog of lyrics, Working on a Dream works surprisingly well. On prize songs like What Love Can Do, Tomorrow Never Knows or the homage to Phantom Dan, The Last Carnival, Working on a Dream shines in pop delight. On the best moments this album becomes a forgotten relic from the sixties. Working on a Dream sounds like it drags the Byrds, Brian Wilson, the Stones, Leiber and Stoller up to E-Street. The band haven't sounded this good on a record since the River, which doesn't mean they are revisiting. Springsteen still manages to explore new forgotten corners of American music's past. Though the album doesn't have the backbone to really shelter you from winter's bitter cold, it is a nice and pleasant spring breeze that reminds you of the promise summer holds.

Rolling Stone gives the album a full five stars. Let's be honest, three or four would have been enough.
NPR offers an advance listen for those who haven't made their minds up yet.
The Boss himself talks extensively to the Observer about Working on a Dream here.
On a side note, you can find Van Zandt's comments on the Guitar Hero release here.


Anonymous said...

Alex > good to see you back online with Bruce commentary!

Although I like the new cd, I agree about it not being as complex a set of songs as nearly every other Bruce cd.

That being said I think he has taken to heart the idea of getting things out faster and that is part of the price we pay for him not obsessing over stuff for years.

I like the pop songs and laugh with (and maybe at) some of the imagery in songs like Outlaw Pete and Queen of the Supermarket.

It is quite a different album from what folks were expecting and that is nice to say about an artist who has been recording for more than 35 years.
beeswingrm (from BTX)

Keith said...

Nice review Alex.

Scott said...

I'm not sure how I feel about this new album yet. On first listen, it does seem quite a bit less complex lyrically. On the other hand, while a lot of the reviews I've read have focused on the production, I believe the really salient thing is that it's the most melodic album he's ever produced, and what are the odds of that happening at this point in his career?

These days, whenever I first hear a new Bruce Springsteen release, I think about how I didn't care for The Ghost of Tom Joad at all initially, and only realized its brilliance five years later, and how I realized only about two years ago that Lucky Town is a stunningly great album, as opposed to the pretty good-to-really good album I'd thought for the first fifteen years, and that it took me years to trip to the fact that there has never been a lovelier recording ever than "New York City Serenade." And I have decided that by now my boy Spruce has earned my patience.

So. Maybe a somewhere down the road I'll decide that Working on a Dream is his weakest original release ever. Or maybe I'll feel it's in his top five. But I think I'll wait at least five years to decide either way.

And in the meantime, it's certainly enjoyable and illuminating to hash it all out. Thanks for such a great site, Alex.

Buddha said...

Great critique. I just rambled on in my own blog about it, but this album feels like it would have ended up on Tracks, Part 2 at some point. That isn't to say they're bad songs; Bruce doesn't write bad songs. I love the Beach Boys harmonies of "This Life", the beautiful "The Last Carnival" and the song for "The Wrestler" is nice. Would he have released this years ago? Probably not, but who cares. It's just good to hear it.

I'd rather he not release "albums" at all and just post digital as he records it. Some might be great, some might not be. I hate having to wait years, though, between the albums. I mean... he's almost 60.

SoulBoogieAlex said...

Thanks for the response. I have been thinking much along the lines as what you said Buddha. Springsteen certainly seems to be wanting to get material out quicker and enjoy himself as much as he can in the fall of his career while his health is still good and the boys are still with him. Though that means sacrificing on quality a bit, I'm glad he chose that road. Though I'm ambivilant about the album, I am enjoying it. We're getting to see sides of Springsteen we otherwise wouldn't have. A chipper little track like Surprise, Surprise wouldn't have made the cut in the past. Once I got passed the fact that the lyrics do not hold what I came to expect, I find myself enjoying the song very much.

My biggest corncern rightnow is how these songs will gell live. Magic already felt a tad out of place amongst the classics, including the songs of the Rising. I'm curious to see how these will stand up.

Scott said...

My biggest corncern rightnow is how these songs will gell live. Magic already felt a tad out of place amongst the classics, including the songs of the Rising.

Did you really think so? I thought "Radio Nowhere," "Last to Die" and "Long Walk Home" worked far better in concert than, say, the Tunnel of Love material did back in 1988--which is to say, I thought it worked beautifully. And the "Livin' in the Future" to "The Promised Land" segue was brilliant, as was the "Long Walk Home" to "Badlands" transition.

SoulBoogieAlex said...

I really liked how the songs worked live. But looking around me I didn't see nearly the response the songs from the Rising got during that tour. I think that was partly why quite a few were dropped later on in the tour.

Long Walk Home was the song that worked best in my opinion, but even then I could see the more casual fans and some of the long timers getting restless around me.

Jens Wildman said...

Thanx for the review Alex.

I think you are right about some of your thoughts, but I think you are overlooking the fact that the first impression of somewhat simple (at first listens) lyrics flows with the music. And when you take a closer look at them, they may not be so simple after all.

In my mind it works, because he means it, unlike some of the tracks on HT (ex.)

I love you, I love you, Prove it, prove it..

Some of the lyrics are in my mind on the level of TOL as well:

"I finger the hem of your dress, my universe at rest"

"Yes I swore to you my darlin', you were the only one
But I had my good eye to the dark and my blind eye to the sun"

"Till to the music we grow deaf, to God's beauty blind
Why do the things that connect us slowly pull us apart?
Till we fall away in our own darkness, a stranger to our own hearts
And life itself, rushing over me "

"With you I don't hear the minutes ticking by
I don't feel the hours as they fly
I don't see the summer as it wanes
Just a subtle change of light upon your face"

"He who waits for the day's riches will be lost
In the whispering tide
Where the river flows
Tomorrow never knows"

"I've seen strong hearts give way
To the burdens of the day
To the weary hands of time"

"Pete you think you've changed but you have not"...."We cannot undo these things we've done"

"Have you ever seen a one armed man punchin' at nothing but the breeze
If you've ever seen a one armed man then you've seen me"

Is it a classic on the level of BTR? Maybe not. But, it is a damn fine album, with the necessary depth, sure as hell is.

Tell my the last time you listened to an album and you gained so much thoughts about "Life itself"?

And, just so I said it, I was very sceptic about this album.

Anonymous said...

Hi alex,
a very good review, a little too harsh for me, but very carefully written.
I do not agree completely about lyrics worth. I think Life Itself, Kingdom of Days and This life are deep and showing the usual craftmanship.
Glad you're back...

SoulBoogieAlex said...

I must admit that the lyrics are slowly gaining on impact for me. But only because I allow them to. I do not really agree with Jens that there are lyrics on the level of Tunnel of Love on here. Tunnel excelled at the Flannery O'Conner approach, the lyrics felt like everyday dialogue to me. Working Never Reaches the level a line like;

"Lights go out and it's just the three of us.
You, me and all those things we're so scared of"

Working certainly doesn't have a superb lyric like Brilliant Disguise, a lyric that works on so many levels in detailing uncertainty in a relationship I'm tempted to say it is the best lyric he ever wrote.

I do agree with Jens however that he sings the album as he means it. So there's the absolute joy in his voice on Surprise, the contemplative Bruce on Life Itself or the sweet and melancholic Bruce in the moving Last Carnival.

These songs, in my opinion, aren't saved by their lyrics, but by their melodies and the strength of their vocals.

The review seems harsh, even though I find myself enjoying the album. I just like to hold our hero up to the high standards he set himself, and is in a sense trapped by. However, this doesn't mean I expect him, or wish him, to make a new Born to Run or Tunnel of Love. I thought the Rising and Seeger Sessions were great albums. I count the Rising amongst his classic albums. I enjoy the way he continues to explore different corners of American music every new outing and hope he continues to do just that. In my mind Working falls a tad short on the promise his greatest albums deliver, but just a tad. I think it is still a nice and solid record.

ol'catfishinthelake said...

Great review. You hit the nail on the head, as usual. Agree about Brilliant Disguise too--that closing couplet is his best lyrical moment.