Bruce Springsteen’s Working On A Dream remains deeply misunderstood

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Sometimes, I find myself very disappointed with the state of music writing. For every well-written and thoughtful review, there are 20 that are full of clichés, half-truths, and verbiage that does everything but talk about the music. Of course, I don’t need to remind myself that this state of affairs, which is nothing new, is exactly what got me interested in becoming a writer in the first place.

… Art is out there waiting to be captured, the only question being whether we are prepared to recognize it. — Michael Kimmelman

This sense of disappointment becomes especially intense when a major recording artist issues a new release. The problem isn’t so much that I find myself in agreement or disagreement with the reviews. No, what really gets me down is that it just seems like the writers very often miss the point. In their attempt to reveal the supposed agenda behind the new record, they miss mountains of important details.

With Bruce Springsteen’s Working On A Dream, this phenomenon seemed to jump to a new level — even among the “fans.” We were told, upon its release on January 27, 2009, that Springsteen had “dashed these songs off too quickly,” the writing was simplistic, he’d “given up,” he was just “looking back at what used to be,” he knew his career is almost over, he was just out to make a buck. Wow. Opinions aside, it appears that these people have some sort of E-Street crystal ball, one with perfect vision in all directions.

What’s pretty clear to me is that Bruce Springsteen caught a spark of inspiration when working on Magic. On that 2007 record, you can hear it in songs like “I’ll Work For Your Love,” and (especially) “Girls In Their Summer Clothes.” The hooks and melodies from the music of his formative years has worked its way back into his songwriting. Many such tunes showed up as guests during the Magic tour which followed, my favorites being “Then She Kissed Me” and “Little Latin Lupe Lu.”

Set the theme
with a cadence
of love’s old
sweet song –

No harm in
the emotional
nor in remembering all
you can or want to

Let the faint, faded music
pour forth its wonder
and bewitch whom it will,
still dancers under the moon – Robert Creeley

With Working On A Dream, Bruce Springsteen was indeed looking back thematically … and ahead. Songs like “Life Itself,” “Kingdom Of Days,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “This Life” looked at the passage of time, while keeping an eye toward the future. Love gets a person to a particular place and, hopefully, is a guide into tomorrow. The thoughts are painted out with sonic elements from pop music’s past. “Life Itself” contained some jangly, Byrds-like guitar work that culminated in a twisted, backwards guitar solo. The backing vocals on “Working On Dream,” as well as “Queen Of The Supermarket,” would have been at home on a Mamas and Papas record. “This Life” begins with a strong Brian Wilson-ism, and the soaring vocals during the chorus have more than a little Fifth Dimension flair.

Elsewhere, Springsteen visited several other musical styles, from the cinematic orchestrations of “Outlaw Pete” (with Morricone-esque guitar figures) to the country shuffle of “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which reminded me of my mom’s old Charlie Pride records), to the exuberant rock of “My Lucky Day” to the snarling blues of “Good Eye.” Heck, even the Beatles get in on the act with the giddy pop of “Surprise, Surprise.”

Working On A Dream ended with a solid pair of emotion-laden songs. “The Last Carnival” was a fine acoustic ballad and sendoff to the late Danny Federici. The calliope notes were a beautiful touch, as were the swelling gospel-tinged vocals that end the song. “The Wrestler,” while written for Mickey Rourke’s film character, can be applied to just about any person who has had to deal with decline.

The lingering descriptions of Working On A Dream as “facile” and “simplistic” cause me to wonder if we’re listening to the same music. Sure, there’s some pop music here amidst the “serious” material. But to decide that the album was tossed together quickly out of leftovers and half-baked ideas? Well, I don’t own one of those crystal balls, so don’t ask me.

Why do the things that we treasure most, slip away in time
Till to the music we grow deaf, to God’s beauty blind — Bruce Springsteen, “Life Itself”

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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