Working on a Dream
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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
This all seemed to change with 2006’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a passion project that found Springsteen leading a hoedown in a barn with a wild pack of folk musicians. At last, he seemed to have made peace with his perfectionism, and learned to loosen his grip on the music’s power – which is why, despite the fact that it lacks so much as a single note from an electric guitar, Seeger Sessions might be Springsteen’s most rock ‘n’ roll album, and perhaps also why the years since its release have seen him unleash a torrent of music both new (2007’s Magic) and revisited (Live in Dublin, recorded with the Seeger Sessions Band and released the same year). For fans who waited patiently during the long breaks that have often preceded new music from Springsteen, this new Bruce has been an unexpected gift – most artists with his level of success and experience take twice as long to release music half as good.
Which brings us to Working on a Dream – most of which is, coincidentally, roughly half as good as Springsteen’s best work.
Of course, music only half as good as Springsteen’s best is still pretty solid – and "pretty solid" is as apt a summation as any for this collection. It’ll disappoint listeners looking for something on a par with latter-day high points such as The Rising (or even Magic), but that’s partly due to the fact that it doesn’t hang together thematically the way we’ve been conditioned to think Springsteen albums ought to. It doesn’t tell a story, and it doesn’t form a cohesive whole – it’s just a collection of songs that happen to have been written by the last hero standing in rock and roll, and if some of them seem rather small, it’s probably mostly because of the large shadow cast by their many classic forebears.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any duds in the batch, however – chief among them the album’s opening track, "Outlaw Pete," an eight-minute exercise in epic silliness that makes Billy Joel’s "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" sound like a work of deep profundity. It’s got all the form of Springsteen’s early story songs, but little of the function – a problem that runs more or less throughout Working on a Dream, which is heavy on tracks whose lyrics struggle to live up to its often over-inflated arrangements. "Queen of the Supermarket" is stirring, but it still feels like someone’s idea of a Springsteen working-class anthem; "This Life" grunts under ladles full of bombast worthy of an early ‘80s Neil Diamond record; "Surprise, Surprise" takes a perfectly good hook and runs it into a briar patch full of lines like "When the sun comes out tomorrow, it'll be the start of a brand new day." So on and so forth.
But even those songs have their moments, and when Working on a Dream is good, it’s very good – good enough to provoke a grin or two, or maybe a smile, or even an old-fashioned fist-pump. "My Lucky Day" sounds like a long-lost cousin of "Glory Days" – which is not at all a bad thing – and it’s probably the runt of the album’s strongest songs, a litter that includes the catchy title track, the harmonica-driven "Good Eye," and a number of the clear-eyed ruminations on love and mortality that we’ve come to expect from post-U.S.A. Bruce ("The Last Carnival," an elegiac tribute to deceased E Streeter Danny Federici, is fairly devastating).
All told, it’s a collection as eclectic and light in spirit as any Springsteen has yet released, and although it isn’t without its flaws – and even if you’ll probably want to spend some time creating your own artwork to cover up the hideous remedial Photoshop monstrosity it comes with – it still offers evidence of the artist at his restless, invigorated best. Follow his lead: turn up these songs and enjoy the shallow water for a spell.