Bruce Springsteen
   
Working on a Dream
   
   

Release Date: January 27, 2009
Produced by: Brendan O'Brien
Format: CD/DVD Deluxe Edition

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02/04/2009
Mark Squirek


 

Strangely enough, positivity and optimism scare people. Than again, so does death. Two very opposite extremes. What’s the best way to deal with something that scares you? Look it in the eye and laugh. Get together with your friends and celebrate what you have. Maybe tell a story or two.

That’s what Springsteen does on Working on a Dream. He does it surrounded by massive arrangements and on one of the CD’s most perfect tracks, the absence of a massive arrangement.

This is music that swims in harmony; it walks down the street laughing with friends; it rings with the joy of a cool night at the drive-in 1965; it also sits alone at the kitchen table at 3:10 in the morning and more than once in a while, it takes refuge in the Brill Building. The arrangements seem to hold a tip of the hat to a dozen sources and influences from Brian Wilson to R.E.M. to Robert Johnson to Motown to Credence to The Byrds to Paul Simon and even Bruce himself. It does all these things and more and it does almost all of them perfectly.

At the start of his career, one of Bruce’s earliest goals was to write a song that would drive an audience crazy. First came Thundercrack. Than he found Rosalita. Next he told us the story of the E Street Band in Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.  These were anthemic and narrative fables that created a mythology which both Bruce and the audience could hold onto. These classic numbers either slipped into legend (Thundercrack) or ended up a vital part of the albums they appeared on. They also were incredible concert showcases.

Instead of opening the CD with the joyous three and a half minute pop of Lucky Day like anyone else would, Bruce goes back thirty years and drops an eight minute story-song right at the start. It’s going to be interesting to see how much Outlaw Pete changes when it hits the stage.

This time Bruce is looking at the mythology of America. It isn’t just the Jersey shore any more. His recent years in folk opened the way he writes for the E Street Band. Outlaw Pete works the same ground that saw Pecos Bill and Pretty Boy Floyd and Paul Bunyon and Big John Henry rise from the American Prairie. It starts out a bit absurd and removed from real life (He robbed a bank in his diapers!) but quickly moves into the real as Bruce jumps between narrator, Outlaw Pete himself and an assassin.  Like much of American mythology the hero’s end is obscured by time and legend.

From the opening urgency of the strings to the way instruments and echo move in and out of the song, Outlaw Pete is a cinemascope, double-screen ride across time. Slipped somewhere in the middle of the song is idea of the acceptance of the life we have chosen; what we have become as we age. The dying killer tells Pete  “We cannot undo these things we’ve done”. It may be an assassin talking to an outlaw, but it is the best advice you can ever hear when you start to have regrets about life. And it is all wrapped up in an arrangement that would fit inside an MGM western such as The Naked Spur with Jimmy Stewart.

From the legend of Outlaw Pete it is straight to E Street as the Max kicks in with the drums for Lucky Day. The rock and pop that permeated The River album is now almost thirty years older. Lucky Day is a close cousin to I’m a Rocker and You Can Look But Better Not Touch. It moves a bit slower but it is powerfully driven forward by Gary Tallent’s looping “McCartney doing Rain” inspired bass. 

As big as many of the arrangements are, quiet moments can be found in many of the lyrics. Consider the thought behind Queen of the Supermarket.

Stay with me for a second, please. In the film Citizen Kane, a reporter is trying to figure out what Kane’s last word “Rosebud” meant. He interviews the man who served as Kane’s assistant for years, Mr. Bernstein to find insight into the word’s meaning.

Bernstein tells him the following  “A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.” The thought of that brief sighting has stayed with Bernstein for decades. In Queen of the Supermarket Bruce tells us the same story only from a different angle.

Mr. Bernstein may have only seen his dream woman once but Bruce sees his version at the supermarket every time he stops by. He knows there will never be anything between them but he has his dreams and occasionally the dreams are given fuel. He sums it up by saying “I turn my back for a moment and catch a smile that blows this whole fucking place apart”. A smile from a stranger can change your whole day.

From the distorted blues of Good Eye to the folk of Tomorrow Never Knows,  the CD travels across the landscape of everything Bruce has ever listened to since he got his first radio. Life Itself holds a beautiful section that sounds like a backwards-masked guitar from a middle period Beatles album. The sounds of the Beach Boys and California waves show up in This Life. Good Eye opens with swamp noise and becomes a Crossroads-type blues for 2009. If you hear Credence in the opening acoustic guitars of Tomorrow Never Knows, you aren’t the only one. A string passage on Outlaw Pete can either take you to Motown or a refrain from a hit by Kiss.

As the CD winds down the songs grow even more direct and reflective. Kingdom of Days openly states repeatedly “I Love You” and begins to close with “And I count my blessings that your mine for always”. Sure, it may be knocking on the door of Hallmark card, but you have to factor in the man’s honesty and sincerity in what he is singing. He is alive and he is damn glad that he isn’t alone.

Feelings and thoughts inspired by the death of longtime cohort, friend and band member Danny Federici hang over the release. It is only in the official closing number The Last Carnival that Bruce seems to directly address the absence. It could be almost any absence but we know it is Danny. The lyrical nod to Wild Billy’s Circus and the haunting choral work at the end leave no doubt to the intention. It is also a graceful and open letter to the confusion inspired by death itself. “Where are you now my handsome Billy?” The lyric is not only looking for his friend, it is seems to be asking about the reality of the afterlife, or it’s opposite, non-existence.

The CD holds an added track. The Wrestler ran over the closing credits of the film of the same name. Here, after all the voices and guitars and beautifully placed piano chords and drum fills and bass runs and sax solos that make up the E Street band, the song opens with a light cinematic string arrangement but quickly moves into a man and his guitar.

This time it is what Bruce leaves out of the arrangement that adds to the song. There is no harmonica to close a verse. There is no plaintive howl to emphasize the lonely quiet of the lyric. There is only the strength of the man’s story and his character moving the song forward. Eventually a very light piano shows up and after a while a few harmonies start to drop in. Nothing distracts from the song itself. Every single note has a purpose.

Which brings us back to the CD as a whole. Sometimes the arrangements and musical references are too big or too direct. Yes, the stories or sentiment can veer near cheesy. (I really like Queen of the Supermarket, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a hint of provolone!). And yes, I would have preferred that the CD open with Lucky Day instead of Outlaw Pete. I love the idea of opening with an eight minute fable, but not the actual execution.

Even with it’s minor faults, including an occasional brittle crispness to the sound which can detract from the warmth of what he is saying,  there is nothing lazy or insincere about Working on a Dream. Bruce once said that his fans don’t seem to like his records when he is happy. Maybe this is true. But this really isn’t a happy record. It is a record about life and living it and appreciating that life. If you encounter happiness along the way, well, than you are just lucky.

No one can be the same person that they were at 23 or 32 or 41 when they are now 59. It is crazy to expect that of anyone. Why expect it out of Bruce? Take the stories, take the sentiment, take the music of the E Street Band and let it wash over you and distract you from the crazy out of control world.  

BONUS REVIEW STUFF!

The CD is also available as a CD/DVD format. The 40 minute DVD holds a good amount of studio hi-jinks and studio chatter, but there is plenty of music to be found. Several of the songs played look like complete videos, they just aren’t’ addressed or labeled as such. This is a bonus DVD that I will return to more than once.


The DVD also holds the a complete lyric booklet as well as some inspired artwork. In addition to that, the DVD features a track which was originally announced as being part of the CD. A Night With the Jersey Devil walks in the same distorted blues as Good Eye from the regular CD. The video for the song was originally posted on the website at Halloween. It is a fun track that reminds us that Bruce the actor didn’t end after the video for I’m on Fire. As much fun as the song is, they were wise to leave it off the general release and place it as a video on the Deluxe Edition.  It would have distracted from much of what Working on a Dream seems to be saying. For the price difference. The CD/DVD combo is a great purchase for fans who want a little bit more.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 



 
     
     
     

 

 

   
 
     

 

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