Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Bruce Springsteen's Working on a Dream

by Scott

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?]


scott91777 said...

Re: The Slate analysis.

If you're looking for Transcendence or to find some deeper meaning in life, the Superbowl halftime show is not the place.

Bruce, I think rightly, saw the spot as what it was: a commercial venue. He did exactly the kind of show I thought he'd do "10th Avenue Freeze Out" for the true Springsteen fans, "Born To Run" and "Glory Days" (which I rightly predicted he would, not only play, but change the baseball lyrics to football lyrics")for the larger audience and "Working on a Dream" to promote the new album (I'm continually puzzled when people critique an artist based on their desire to actually sell albums; do you think Bruce DOESN'T want people to buy the album? Or, more appropriately, do you think he wants people to only buy his old ones? Why bother making a new record if you don't want people to buy it.)

At the end of the day, Bruce is an entertainer and, as much as I would have enjoyed the entire 12 minutes being filled by a rollicking rendition of "Kitty's Back", there are millions of others who probably would have been left scratching their heads (one of my students didn't understand why he didn't play 'any songs that everyone knew' like "Born in The USA").

Honestly, having seen him twice live, a 12 minute TV slot can't accurately reflect the full-on 2 1/2 hour experience of a Springsteen show; that said, I think the halftime spot did a good job of giving an abbrieviated version of that and, yes, that does involve moving copies of the new record and selling tickets for a new tour.

(Question: why aren't hip-hop artist ever called out for their own openly commercial aspirations the way the rock artist are?)

scott91777 said...

Oh, and, seriously? He wanted him to play "The Wrestler" during the half-time show? On one of the biggest party nights of the year? Don't get me wrong, it's a great song and has quickly become a favorite, but, I mean, talk about 'Captain Bringdown and the Party Pooper Patrol'....

sara d. reiss said...

I liked the part where he misjudged the stage-slide and crashed, crotch-first, into the cameras.

scott91777 said...


Still, not bad for a 59 year old wouldn't you say? :)

Marc Caputo said...

I've loved Bruce since I got The River and Born to Run for Christmas 1980. I was a huge fan until the early 1990s, when I started to disagree with some of his decisions. I thought that the SB gig was meh - I would have appreciated 3 full songs (drop 10th Avenue) instead of 4 cut versions. I heard it referred to as a medley and that just gave me chills - is a Vegas revue in the near future?

Prof Fury said...

Seriously, the Slate reviewer is complaining that Bruce "mugg[ed], prance[d], and jape[d]"? Has he ever seen a Springsteen show? I think they key line is in the last paragraph: "Springsteen concerts, when I first attended, were Atlantic Coast joy fests . . . " Perhaps hanging out in the comics blogosphere so much has made me especially sensitive to when someone is confusing nostalgia with critical judgment.

Christian said...

"I liked the part where he misjudged the stage-slide and crashed, crotch-first, into the cameras."

Ahh yes. 2009. The year Bruce Springsteen teabagged America.

Only marginally related, but I really love Tegan and Sara's cover of Dancing in the Dark.


neilshyminsky said...

scott: "(Question: why aren't hip-hop artist ever called out for their own openly commercial aspirations the way the rock artist are?)"

Because hip-hop has largely defined itself as an exercise in upward mobility. And this is cool largely because the artists tend to be oppressed in multiple ways - they're minorities, they're dirt poor, they're from single-parent families, they're criminals... And so if your entire schtick was always about escaping that and getting rich, well then no one can accuse you of selling out when you get there.

scott91777 said...


Wasn't this kind of boastfulness once a part of rock too? and can't a rock artist just as easily come from an oppressed background? Certainly, this kind of commericality has been accepted in rock before... The Beatles had their own frickin' cartoon at one point, yet no one accuses the Beatles of selling out. At what point did it become unacceptable for a rock artist to want to be successful? When did it become "All about the music, man." I guess the idea is that, to the true artist, the money doesn't matter; only the music.

But wouldn't this imply that music is less important for the Hip-Hop artist? As though they're only doing it for the money?

Surely this isn't the case, surely there must be artists who would do it even if they didn't have money.

Perhaps it's not that the music is less important but that the Hip-Hop community is more willing to embraces the desire to succeed as part of the package; that commerce and art can co-exist.

scott91777 said...

I just thought of a better way to phrase that last statement/question: In rock, commercial success is often seen to be the product of artistic compromise, whereas, in Hip-Hop, commercial success does not necessarily mean that an artist is compromising their artistic vision.

So, I guess, my real question is this: At what point did commercial success mean compromise for rock artist?