Releasing a CD filled with politically charged songs is nothing new to Bruce Springsteen. Born In The U.S.A. (Columbia, 1984) made overt commentary on this country's political state at that time. The Rising (Columbia, 2002) featured preachy social commentary on post-9/11 America. Magic (Columbia, 2007) voiced the disillusionment of the soldiers returning from the Middle East. Since a similar case could be made for Devils and Dust (Columbia, 2005), Nebraska (Columbia, 1982) and The Ghost of Tom Joad (Columbia, 1995), it's safe to say that Springsteen writes quite a few politically charged songs.
Working On A Dream can be viewed as a companion piece to Magic. It's easy to think of it that way; however, it's much more. It is the flipside of the coin, a populist's happy answer to the inauguration of President Barack Obama (for whom Springsteen campaigned) and a 13-song declaration of hope, possibility and optimism waged in the face of incredible hardship.
The disc is filled with strong melodies; layered harmonies; "grab-you-and-shake-you-to-the-core" hooks; beautiful imagery; charming, interesting characters; more than a touch of satire and "paint-you-a-picture" lyrics. Borrowing liberally from his influences, Springsteen has weaved together another tapestry of Americana that fits well within his canon while ushering in the latest phase of his career.
The opening "Outlaw Pete" is an epic musical morality tale that calls to mind the classic '30s and '40s westerns directed by Howard Hawks or John Ford. The Delta Blues-inspired "Good Eye" features Springsteen channeling Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. "Last Carnival." a tribute to the recently departed Danny Federici, pays homage to the organist/accordionist, while giving a fond nod to their early adventures with the E Street Band. The jangly psychedelic guitars on "What Love Can Do" are reminiscent of the Byrds, while "Kingdom of Days" has a Roy Orbison-meets-Roger McGuinn-and-Tom Petty vibe. "This Life," with its Beach Boys-like percolating harmonies, is a four-and-a-half minute homage to Brian Wilson and possibly to Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound. In keeping with the disc's musical trip down memory lane aspect, "Surprise, Surprise" sounds like an updated late-'60s/early-'70s pop ditty. Other notable tracks are the straight-forward kickass rocker "My Lucky Day" and the title track, a mid-tempo rocker on which Springsteen ponders his mortality.
While the songs are top notch, the production could be a bit better. Part of Springsteen's appeal is the big sound of his records. Working On A Dream (and to some extent Magic) doesn't have the big sound featured on Born To Run (Columbia, 1975), The River (Columbia, 1980) and his other blockbusters. Though the sound on this disc has been layered and carefully pieced together, its production sounds calculated and assembled. Had this CD been recorded live and mastered straight from the source takes with little or no overdubbing, it would have been a masterpiece. Still, despite the constrained and less than bombastic production values, this album is very good.
Track Listing: Outlaw Pete; My Lucky Day; Working on a Dream; Queen of the Supermarket; What Love Can Do; This Life; Good Eye; Tomorrow Never Knows; Life Itself; Kingdom of Days; Surprise, Surprise; The Last Carnival; The Wrestler.
Personnel: Bruce Springsteen: guitar, harmonica percussion, glockenspiel, keyboards, vocals; Steve Van Zandt: guitar, vocals; Nils Lofgren: guitar, vocals; Garry Tallent: bass; Patrick Warren: piano, keyboards; Roy Bittan: organ, piano, accordion; Danny Federici: organ; Jason Federici: accordion; Clarence Clemons: saxophone, vocals; Soozie Tyrell: violin, vocals; Max Weinberg: drums; Patti Scialfa: vocals.
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