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Working On A Dream – Bruce Springsteen

Columbia

After nearly seven years of living through the Bush administration, Bruce Springsteen released Magic. That album shined a light on an America in turmoil, a country he didn’t recognize. Possibly, the negativity of that release coupled with the opportunity to continue working with the E Street Band members caused him to start recording the majority of the tracks that make up Working On A Dream immediately after Magic completed. His 24th album offers a tempered glimmer of optimism, a respite from the fever dream of the past eight years with the songs’ narrators making it day-by-day with the helpful assistance of the ones they love.

Together, they move forward to an uncertain, but hopeful, future. Following 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad Springsteen has replaced lyrical immediacy for poetic layers. His characters are shadows of figures and situations and lovers who make it through life with adult bodies that sometimes let them down. While the song’s overall meaning can be clouded, its depth can be intoxicating (“What Love Can Do”). Working with producer Brendan O’Brien again, the songs move from the patented E Street Band rock sound (“My Lucky Day”) to the bluesy guise displayed live while performing “Reason To Believe” (“Good Eye”). There is a Seeger Sessions-like nod with a “Nashville Skyline”/Johnny Cash twist (“Tomorrow Never Knows”) and solo acoustic tunes with little flourish (“The Last Carnival” and “The Wrestler”).

And then, there are string arrangements that provide subtle support and even the perverse yet suitable idea of a whistled solo on “Working On A Dream.” With a nod to blue collar humility, the title track presents a vision of doing what it takes to move one step closer to the American Dream. Much of the album contains the right emotional tone, but with the economy swirling around the toilet bowl at the moment, an angrier display, ala “Born in the U.S.A,” would have felt much more appropriate.

Listening to Working On A Dream reinforces where Springsteen has been heading artistically. I’ve always wondered why, looking out at a full arena dancing and singing along to his tunes, why much of the crowd mimics the age of the musicians onstage. He’s broken through to a next generation but not on the same level as Led Zeppelin or Tom Petty or Bob Dylan, and some of his other contemporaries. And, with this album, I’ve realized it comes down to a matter of Springsteen not just remaining to true to his 60s musical roots but defiantly pulling rock n’ roll into adulthood. Whereas some artists rely on vintage misogyny to the point where it becomes creepy, Springsteen is aware that he’s not just an artist and entertainer but also a husband and father.

On “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” from Magic, he’s more wistful than lustful. Here, he relates a loner’s longing on “Queen of the Supermarket,” travels down the Brian Wilson Highway with custard-flavored harmonies and lush production on the gorgeous “This Life” and offers the idea that a few sparks still can start a fire on “Kingdom of Days” (“We laughed beneath the covers/and count the wrinkles and the grays”). While rock n’ roll is generally viewed as a young man’s game, he’s been able to play lengthy shows that would leave scores of emo acts huffing and puffing on the side of the stage, and Springsteen’s done it while writing in a manner that displays the complexity of life and how there are no easy answers, taboot. Success being determined by the ability to make it home to the one you love, and the possibility that tomorrow may bring you one step closer to life’s jackpot.

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