Perhaps it's a relief that, despite the implications of its title, Working On a Dream is not a state of the nation address. At the dawn of the presidency of a man who recently said he had put himself up for the job only when he finally concluded that he could never be Bruce Springsteen, these 13 songs offer not even the most oblique of references to public affairs. The best of them concentrate on states of the heart, but with an openness and an optimism that seem unclouded by wider doubts and fears, as if in recognition of a need for consolation.
This is the fourth studio album Springsteen has made in collaboration with the producer Brendan O'Brien, and it continues the practice of producing songs in which the musical trademarks of the E Street Band are outnumbered by adventures into areas not previously associated with Springsteen. The string orchestra that made its appearance on a couple of tracks of 2007's Magic, used in ways that avoided the saccharine or the melodramatic, return in various forms on the new album, joined by a variety of sounds and approaches seemingly retrieved from the further reaches of young Springsteen's record collection: the Beach Boys harmonies on This Life, for example, and the jangling Byrds-like guitars on Life Itself, and the I Am the Walrus-style fadeout of Queen of the Supermarket.
Although Working On a Dream was recorded almost immediately after the completion of Magic, apparently provoked by Springsteen's inability to stop writing songs, there is no sense of haste or superficiality. At least half the songs have the real substance of his best work, and almost all, even the plainest, benefit from repeated listenings.
The album begins and ends with portraits of outsiders. The opener, Outlaw Pete, is an eight-minute narrative epic of frontier lore and justice, evoking the works of Frederick Remington, Cormac McCarthy and Sergio Leone as it gallops through a world of stick-ups, Navajo maidens and vengeful rivals, accompanied by the plaintive harmonica, twangy guitar and tolling mission bell of a Morricone soundtrack. Forty minutes later we are in the company of The Wrestler, written to complement Mickey Rourke's cinematic portrayal of an all-round loser: the pensive first-person ballad is notable for a fine, resonant lyric and for a line of melody appropriated from one of Springsteen's own lesser known classics, One Step Up, from 1987's Tunnel of Love.
Although he has always shown a willingness to borrow from himself, Working On a Dream never feels overburdened by those Springsteen mannerisms that have become cliches. Tomorrow Never Knows, which steals only its title from the Beatles song, is a lilting Nashville shuffle. Life Itself, a stately melody built on a laconic strum, adds glistening layers of raga-rock 12-string guitars to a chorus that gathers intensity through small repetitions. Good Eye is dredged from the swamp of the Delta blues, a stripped-down charge through the comfortless territory once inhabited by Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf. On Kingdom of Days, introduced by piano and cello, Springsteen croons, "I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I do," like a man who can't contain his happiness. The Last Carnival, the penultimate track, is a barely disguised elegy to Danny Federici, the E Street Band's organist, who died of cancer last year; beginning with the hazy sound of a fairground calliope and ending with a poignant chorale, it is followed by a full 15 seconds of silence before The Wrestler is allowed to conclude the album.
These successes make it easier to pass over the three or four disappointments, including the title track, a would-be blue- collar anthem that doesn't quite work. When Springsteen prefaced his early-80s gigs with Elvis's Follow That Dream, he found himself a useful manifesto; all these years later, however, songs with "dream" in the title should be probably be confined to TV talent shows featuring Andrew Lloyd Webber.
But when you're listening to a new album for the first time, there is sometimes one track that commands you to stop and play it again and again before carrying on to hear the rest. Here, that track is This Life, a gorgeous medium-tempo pop song with melodic twists that could have come from the pen of Brian Wilson, or even his gruffer, more soulful brother, Dennis. If Kingdom of Days sounds like a conscious attempt to recapture the pure-pop magic of Hungry Heart, this more oblique song actually brings it off: it's the one that's in your head the next morning, and that the audiences will be singing back to him as soon as he hits the road again.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017