A DREAM REALIZED: THE BOSS RETURNS TO OFFICE AND DELIVERS ANOTHER MASTERPIECE

working-on-a-dream

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Originally posted January 25th, 2009

Bruce Springsteen has always had a firm grasp on Americana. It seems that way more so than ever since the turn of the century. He has reunited with the E Street Band on numerous ventures in the last decade, beginning with a reunion tour in 1999 lasting into 2000. In 2002, in the aftermath of the events of 9/11, Bruce and the E Street Band gave us their first album together in 18 years with the reflective modern-day masterpiece ‘The Rising’. It was requiem for a nation shrouded in grief. Bruce had his ear tilted towards the American psyche, more specifically, what the American psyche needed. He was the one guy that could build a concept record off the ruin of 9/11, and make it blossom. Where as most artists would come off as pretentious in a heavy-handed manner, it felt more sincere coming from Bruce, since the heavy activity of 9/11 took place right in his backyard. With one hand firmly on the pulse of the nation, and the other gripping the neck of his Fender Telecaster, Bruce was more vital than ever to the frontier of America. It cemented the return of, and the importance of him and the E Street Band in American music. The band reconvened with Bruce in 2007, when his hand was forced by the continuing inadequacies of former President George W. Bush’s administration to create ‘Magic’. An album that was laced with under currents of the political landscape masked in Bruce’s pop oriented songwriting, the muscular sound of the E Street Band, and the layered production of producer Brendan O’Brien. It was an album that didn’t strike an immediate chord, but grew more impressive and decisive with each listen on the stance of Bruce on current America. 16 months later Bruce returns with his third record with the E Street Band this decade in ‘Working On A Dream’. For a craftsman on the level of Bruce, this is something unheard of, usually taking years between the release of records to get them situated. Releasing two albums in this little of time apart is something that he hasn’t done since releasing his first album ‘Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.’ and his second album ‘The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle’ in the same year back in 1973. Bruce himself was at first hesitant at the idea, but producer Brendan O’Brien (Who also produced his two previous albums with the E Street Band in ‘The Rising’ and ‘Magic’), pushed him to pursue a new album. There was enough material left over from the ‘Magic’ sessions to begin crafting another album. Bruce agreed and the E Street Band was called in as reinforcement. Bruce then made a statement on his website, which stated, “Towards the end of recording ‘Magic’, excited by the return to pop production sounds, I continued writing. When my friend producer Brendan O’Brien heard the new songs, he said, ‘Let’s keep going.’ Over the course of the next year, that’s just what we did, recording with the E Street Band during the breaks on last year’s tour. I hope ‘Working on a Dream’ has caught the energy of the band fresh off the road from some of the most exciting shows we’ve ever done. All the songs were written quickly, we usually used one of our first few takes, and we all had a blast making this one from beginning to end.” Bruce and his band stand at a crossroads staring down every path invigorated with a new sense of hope, arriving just in time for the changing of the guard in America with new President of the United States Barack Obama now in office. No doubt the album’s sparks and kinetic energy were kick started, and arose from the formula of an election in which the United States has more invested in and more at stake in than ever, its future. Springsteen being the blinding truth-seeker he is, saw the weight of importance, going to bat for Obama on the campaign trail at several political rallies. The roots for the push to rapid release the new record really took shape and gained momentum when Springsteen stated, “I don’t know about you, but I want my country back. I want my dream back. I want my America back.” After Obama secured the presidency of the United States, it appeared as if a dream had been realized in some form. This was Bruce’s cue to finish cranking out an album that would read like a tributary of the times. Bruce goes mining through his past sounds and has struck gold once again.

‘Working On A Dream’ continues in the same vein as ‘Magic’ as Springsteen continues to follow his pop sensibilities in both songwriting and song-craft. The album opens with the epic gunslinger ballad ‘Outlaw Pete’. At eight minutes long it’s one of the longest songs Springsteen’s ever written and it ranks right up with his best monumentally lengthy tunes. With a rush of cellos bursting through the scenery its clear that Springsteen has returned to his love of layered orchestrations that really went missing after ‘Born To Run’. Another thing apparent is Springsteen has returned to the arena of his Roy Orbison influenced singing where he carries his voice several octaves higher, mixing it in with the gruff drawl that has found its way into so many of his records as well. This is most apparent where the chilling breakdown happens near the end when Springsteen sounds like he’s at the bottom of a wild west canyon as his vocals boom echoing, “Outlaw Pete, Outlaw Pete, can you hear me?” The organ gives the moment a particularly ethereal feel. A moment that suspends you in time, as the rest of the band re-enters the fray galloping to a frenzied crescendo. From there, Bruce and the E Street Band let the hatches fly off with the surging optimism with ‘My Lucky Day’. Some of Bruce’s songs are so great musically you can get the scenery without even hearing the lyrics and this is the case here. There is the sunrise of hope as Roy Bittan’s vibrant bouncing piano gives way to Bruce who’s singing for miles and miles. It’s classic ‘glory days’ E Street sound. The song is massive with rich harmonies from Bruce and Steven Van Zandt and just when you need it, as if on cue, Clarence Clemons taps the nerve with a burst of his signature saxophone howl. The title track follows with lush layers of  guitar that cool from the burst of ‘Lucky Day’ to a confident stroll down main street. Springsteen rolls up his sleeves and presents a reaffirmation of the positive outlook flooding the album, with Bruce even letting his guard down to break into a whistle solo. Eat your heart out Axl! The song suggests that a “dream” realized is definitely possible, but you need to work on it, and you need to help others work on it in sense of unity. He then returns to his classic operatic wail with the fantastic ‘Queen Of The Supermarket’. Bruce plays the roll like so many of his characters watching his love interest from a far in a voyeuristic yet romantic fashion, while he remains a ghost or an apparition to her for the most part. It’s a glorious tragedy of the unattainable where the smallest of things can bust all of the seams of complacency such as when he turns back for one moment to catch her smile and, “It blows this whole fuckin’ place apart.” It’s also here where the orchestrations add to the atmosphere and several others dressing up the album’s songs like mini-operas. This is prevalent on tracks like ‘This Life’ and ‘Kingdom Of Days’ as well. ‘This Life’ has signatures that mirror that of ‘Your Own Worst Enemy’ off ‘Magic’ with a classic sweeping majestic E Street encore finale bow flanked by a tremendous exit solo from Clarence. ‘What Love Can Do’ was actually the first song that was made for the record as Springsteen stated, “During the last weeks of mixing ‘Magic’, we recorded a song called “What Love Can Do.” It was sort of a “love in the time of Bush” meditation. It was a great track but felt more like a first song of a new record rather than something that would fit on ‘Magic’.” ‘Good Eye’ is a gritty blues rocker, which may be the most surprising on the album. It’s the first time on record Bruce has gone for a straight-ahead blues track with a standard 12-bar blues format. Along with its bluesy roots romp it has the rough weathered distortion vocals of Springsteen causing him to sound more like Buddy Guy than Orbison. Throw in some dirt road harmonica and the song sounds like it rose up out of the Mississippi deltas with the sheer archaic power of the blues journeymen that began laying the foundation of rock and roll over 80 years ago. Continuing his genre jumping, he hits with the country styling of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Not to be confused with the psychedelic safari of the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, Bruce sounds like he made the subtle railroad traveling song for Bob Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’. ‘Life Itself’ is perhaps the darkest track on the album with its ominous meditation speaking of the every day hardships of life. Once surrounded in riches and wealth, the character is torn down into situated rubble. He is dipping his feet into the black end of the waters that populated ‘The River’ as Springsteen contemplates with lines like, “Why do the things that connect us, slowly pull us apart?”. The original album closer is the most fragile with ‘The Last Carnival’. The track is used as a moving tribute to fallen comrade ‘Phantom’ Dan Federici, the prominent organist and original member of the E Street Band who had been playing with Bruce for nearly 40 years, died last April after losing his lengthy battle with melanoma. This created a fragility that rattled the band, as it always seemed like a bulletproof invincible force that could last forever as the band remained in tact for decades with relatively few tragedies in the family. But like they do better than any other act, they have pulled together and have risen above the tragedy of Federici, strong as ever. Unlike most of the rest of the album, the arrangement on the track is rather sparse. It’s a fitting coda to their fallen band member and friend as Bruce sings of the bright lights and fanfare of the carnival with the E Street Band having to move on down the road without him. Dan plays the role of Billy, whose journey is now at an end, and is left behind but his spirit and legacy remain in tact. It would seem to mirror the same Billy who was the main attraction of Springsteen classics like ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ and ‘New York City Serenade’. The layered chorus ending serves as a hymnal escort for Federici’s legacy into the heavenly skies. The bonus track is well worth the wait entitled ‘The Wrestler’ taken from the Darren Aronofsky film by the same name. It seems like when directors ask Bruce to pen a great tune for their movies, he does so effortlessly. The poetry pours from Springsteen like the blood spilled by protagonist Mickey Rourke in the movie who is a pro wrestler past his prime, broken down by disintegrating family relationships, coupled with steroid and drug abuse trying to make a living. The track is beautiful with just Bruce on acoustic guitar accompanied by a solemn piano (also played by Springsteen himself) where he unveils some of his most heartbreaking lyrics like, “I always leave with less than I had before/ Then you’ve seen me/ Bet I can make you smile when the blood it hits floor./ Tell me friend can you ask for anything more?” The broke and beaten protagonist declares that his only faith left is, “In the broken bones and bruises I display.” The track is a truly devastating masterpiece of self-defeating fashion. Like so many of Springsteen’s lost protagonists in his musical canon, this one stands among his best. An elegant finale to Springsteen’s fantastic opus.

Several influences were involved in the DNA of the record. Whether it’s the election of a new president and optimism of America’s future, a personal satisfaction of a gratifying career with the most reliable backing band on the planet balanced with a fulfilling family life, or the continuing ability to outperform any other act live, Bruce’s mission statement is clear. Change is coming, or at least the hope of change is coming for America and its citizens. It can’t be taken for granted however, and it must be done in a unified effort. This record stands as a soundtrack, as reassurance that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Bruce and the E Street Band charge into the new year with bright rays of light that would probably seem contrived were they to come from a less accomplished and experienced group of musicians. Were it someone else, the passages may fall on deaf ears, but decades of credibility have made Bruce a worthy preacher. Once a kid himself that believed rock and roll could save lives and send a positive message, Bruce is now instilling that same hope in the youth generations later. He has been more involved with the future landscape of America than any of his peers. An upcoming performance at the Super Bowl followed by a blockbuster world tour supporting the album will certainly keep Bruce on the worldwide stage for awhile to come, and there will be more people listening to what he has to say now more than ever. With a perverse dedication to his craft, his fans, and his homeland it’s easy to see that Bruce has clearly grabbed the torch as the conscience of not only rock and roll, but popular American music in general. There are no signs of him slowing down, it seems he has a firm grip on that torch and won’t be giving it up anytime soon. As long has Bruce has that torch burning bright, we’re all better off for it.

1. Outlaw Pete*
2. My Lucky Day*
3. Working on a Dream*
4. Queen of the Supermarket*
5. What Love Can Do
6. This Life*
7. Good Eye*
8. Tomorrow Never Knows*
9. Life Itself
10. Kingdom of Days*
11. Surprise, Surprise
12. The Last Carnival*
13. The Wrestler*
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