Despite the album’s title track being performed at several stops endorsing Barak Obama, Springsteen’s Working On A Dream is his least political album in a decade; in fact, it might be his most personal album since 1987’s Tunnel of Love (or, at least, 1992’s Human Touch). It can definitely be seen as the final part of Springsteen’s ‘Millenial Trilogy’ began with 2002’s The Rising and continued, only 14 months ago, with Magic. But the connection is more musical than lyrical (due, no doubt, in part to all three albums being produced by Brendan O’ Brian). While The Rising gave voice to the country’s post 9-11 confusion and Magic railed against opportunities squandered in Bush’s America, Working On A Dream returns to the kind of epic grandeur and quirky characters that he hasn’t visited in a good three decades.
Magic was the Boss at his tuneful best and saw him craft some of his tightest songs since, at least, Born In The USA (some might even say since Born To Run). With Working on a Dream, he continues along those same lines but accents it with a grandiosity that has been missing from his work since the seventies. No where is that more apparent than on the album opener “Outlaw Pete”; at 8 minutes, it’s the longest song he has recorded in 30 years and, lyrically, it recalls the best of past epics like “Lost in the Flood” and “Jungleland.” It all builds to a brilliant string driven crescendo with Springsteen wailing “can you hear me?” before the titular character rides out blazing through a trail of violins and shrieking guitars.
After a 37 year recording career, Bruce still shows he’s capable of surprises; the distorted blues stomp of “Good Eye” (which, I suspect, might be inspired by the amped up version of “Reason to Believe” that he had been playing on tour last year) and the backwards guitar solo in “Life Itself” are fresh textures added to his already rich palette. And, on one of the album’s highlights, “Surprise, Surprise” we have a rare instance of Springsteen allowing his British invasion influences come to the forefront.
Still, not every track is a homerun. The title track drags, “Tommorrow Never Knows” cops its title from a much better song (a bit of advice, if you’re going to steal a title, steal it from a song that you know won’t be as good as yours) and, maybe, there are a few too many mid-tempo numbers and not enough rockers.
Whenever an artist releases a quickie follow-up to a major release (especially an artist who is usually as slow with his output as Springsteen), I’m always a bit wary; these albums tend to be made up of cast-offs from the previous record or songs written quickly in between rehearsals. These albums tend to best be viewed not so much as albums in their own right as they are a sort of coda to the previous release. Occasionally, an artist will build momentum and take that energy from touring and put it towards building something that does stand as a work unto itself (U2’s Zooropa for instance). Working on A Dream can definitely be categorized in that latter category. I’m still not sure if I like it quite as much as I do Magic (which has become one of my favorite Springsteen albums) but I do know there’s only one person I’ll be rooting for at the Super Bowl this weekend: Bruuuuuuuuce!
[Obviously I failed to put this up before the Superbowl. That said, Scott -- would you care to respond to this Slate analysis of the Superbowl performance?]