I’m gonna take a bet that of this album’s fans, Steven Van Zandt (“I’m a pop-rock-band guy. That’s all I am”) is one of the biggest. He’s stated that he sees this – the last Bruce Springsteen and E-Street album to date – as the logical end of a trilogy that started with The Rising with “a projection more toward the pop-rock form” achieved more completely on Working On A Dream.
I might be quoting more heavily on Mr Van Zandt than anyone else but that’s because Bruce is somewhat quiet about Working On A Dream in hindsight. Even in his own book it got just a fleeting mention. Perhaps he – like quite a few – consider it one without real staying power. Perhaps it was sheer timing that meant that Working On A Dream, the third-and-final album with Van Zandt & co would also be the least rewarding. Let’s face it; in the ten years preceeding its release Bruce had reunited the band and embarked on a huge tour, released The Rising, Magic, Devils & Dust, The Seegar Sessions, an anniversary edition of Born To Run, released The Essential compilation, toured the globe tirelessly and stepped into the political arena with the Vote For Change tour. A whirl of activity that by far eclipsed that of Bruce’s previous decade. It was probably time to take a break.
Instead, struck by inspiration and a writing spell that carried through from the final recording sessions for Magic, Bruce returned to the studio with Brendan O’Brien (one last time) and a core band of Max Weinberg, Roy Bittan and Garry Tallent (other members would be bought in to add their parts later) to catch, as he said, the “energy of the band fresh off the road from some of the most exciting shows we’ve ever done.”
One could argue that, with a Superbowl concert on the horizon the need for product was in mind and this one was perhaps a little under-cooked. One could argue that… could…
See, there are some songs here that I simply cannot connect to no matter how I try. The title track has never clicked. Yeah; it’s nice and pleasant but it just seems to lack spark or real weight and I think he’s tackled the theme better elsewhere (on Lucky Town especially). ‘Queen of the Supermarket’ simply should never have been and I had to wonder what a champion lyricist like Bruce was thinking with ‘Life Itself’ – “We met down in the valley where the wine of love and destruction flowed, there in that curve of darkness where the flowers of temptation grow”… do what, mate?
But. But. But. It’s not fair, though, to write it off or brush over it completely because this is Bruce Springsteen and (with the rare exception) you only tend to have to wait a second for a belter of a song to reveal itself and there is a lot to enjoy on Working On A Dream.
Take the opener; ‘Outlaw Pete’. I know it gets a bit of slack for being a bit overblown and borderline self-parody, but I still enjoy it (granted, I wouldn’t listen to it everyday) and I don’t think Bruce is exactly taking himself seriously with it. Yes it’s daft (“by six months old he’d done three months in jail”), yes it may well have borrowed from another song but it sets the scene – I really think that at this point it was a case that, rather than sweating over everything too much, the mood was “you know what? Fuck it, let’s give it a go”. Not to mention that when played live (though I don’t think it’s been touched since) Steve – a much underused player on stage these days – got to play the lead.
Right on it’s heals – ‘My Lucky Day‘ is another fast, blistering tune that, again, sounds like a blast was had recording it. Its fast, rawer sound almost at odds with the layers of overdubs and lush, huge 60’s sound that drapes so much of the album. Step past the next couple of momentum stallers and you get to the great sonic backdrop of ‘What Love Can Do’ and the swampy, blues-stomp of ‘Good Eye‘ a nice enough (though nothing that special) couple of tunes that sandwich ‘This Life’ – a more obvious Beach Boys’ aping sound you’d be hard pushed to find:
‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ jangles along quickly and without much to hang on to, as does ‘Surprise Surprise’. ‘Kingdom of Days’ is a genuinely warm one about love and ageing. The album’s most affecting track though is saved for last (if we exclude – still very good – ‘The Wrestler’ tacked on as a bonus).
‘The Last Carnival’ is seen by many as a follow up to ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ from The Wild The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. It is, more importantly, for Danny Federici who passed away in April 2008, the first member of the E Street Band to do so having played with Bruce for forty years. Danny had appeared with the band briefly over the previous Magic tour and did so last less than a month before his death. Bruce asked him what song he wanted to play – it was, of course, ‘Sandy’. In his book it’s clear that while Danny Federici was the only member of the band to drive him to violent rage, Bruce had a genuine love for the organ player and his death certainly rocked him, as he said in the eulogy: “After a lifetime of watching a man perform his miracle for you, night after night, it feels an awful lot like love.”
‘The Last Carnival’ is a beautiful send off. An immensely affecting farewell to a fallen brother. After opening to Jason Federici’s accordion, Bruce sings at the bottom of his range in a barely-suppressed choke and hush against minimal accompaniment “Where have you gone my handsome Billy?” before layered voices swell to a choir. It’s a moving send-off and ending to the last album featuring the full E Street Band*.
A couple of clunkers aside, while there’s nothing wrong with the majority of Working On A Dream it perhaps lacks the sharpness and punch of its immediate predecessor. That being said, in amongst some of the most ambitious production of his career (Rolling Stone gave it the default 5 star review, though none of its songs made their 100 Best Springsteen Songs list, wetting their knickers over its lush sound), Bruce was still capable of crafting a fair few beauties so that the good by far outweighed the bad.
Highlights: My Lucky Day, Kingdom of Days, The Last Carnival
Lowlights: Queen of the Supermarket
*Certainly their last full album. Songs that didn’t make the cut on this or its immediate predecessors and featured E Street (and Danny Federici) included High Hopes highlights ‘Down In The Hall’ and ‘The Wall’.