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.