No question: the Boss wants this one to be BIG. Hot off a Golden Globe win for his contribution to Mickey Rourke-reviving flick, The Wrestler, Bruce Springsteen is sandwiching the record — only his third with the E Street band since 1984 — between a high-profile inauguration outing and an appearance as the centerpiece of the Super Bowl’s halftime soiree.
But, while the roll-out is the gargantuan crush of a bona fide rock god, the actual album is a pretty modest affair. Leaked this week, and available as an NPR stream on the 19th, Working on A Dream, is, enticingly, a return to eras the Boss never actually entered. Our pre-release sneak peak after the jump…
On album opener “Outlaw Pete” Springsteen dips as far into ‘60s Dylan as ever, offering a no-good narrator who isn’t so much urban cowboy as a real rough rider. “Good Eye” takes the twang even further, descending into a bluesy, Delta hoedown. From the start, Springsteen avoids the kind of hyper-targeted lyricisms that defined his late-‘90s output. Perhaps he’s realized that broad, all-encompassing strokes are better (after all, even classic Springsteen treads a fine line between effective and ridiculously over-reaching imagery).
Evoking the feel of offbeat ’60s pop, songs like “Working on a Dream” mine the spirit of Roy Orbison and the Beach Boys at their best. “Lalalas” and “Babababas” pulse as lovelorn narrators float amidst a wash of swirling strings. Sure, Springsteen lacks the velvet tongue of a super-slick balladeer or a beach popper, but in most cases, the songs are smoothed over by lush backing harmonies, allowing his rough-and-tumble ramble to emerge on a thick cushion.< “My Lucky Day” is an all-out rocker, with tinkling piano and blazing sax underscoring the kind of anthemic choruses that defined the E Street band in its hey-day. The slightly more stayed "Queen of the Supermarket," meanwhile, feels like a Born in the USA B-side, swelling longingly with the dreams and ambitions of Middle America. Whether or not, as Springsteen claims, the record’s songs were all culled from “one of our first few takes,” there’s no question that the energy is the result of the band’s return to the road. Whereas the E Street Band’s last record was often grand in ambition, it felt as pieced together as it was — the result of several talented musicians recording separately. Here, the band’s interplay is unassailable.
Sadly, the Boss himself is not. Tunes like “What love Can Do” and “Life Itself” feel faceless, straight, mid-tempo rockers rife with stale sentiment. And, while the effect is generally masked throughout the rest of the album, it’s in these moments that the “Dylan effect” emerges. Yes, Springsteen’s voice has held up relatively well, but in these songs one senses hammers descending on the high notes, pounding the gravel in Springsteen’s voice to powdery stone.
Putting a far surer foot forward, “Tomorrow Never Knows” retains the twang and lush orchestration of his 2006 Seeger Sessions, simultaneously mimicking the train-track folk of Dylan and contemporary Tom Petty. “The Last Carnival” goes even farther, stripping things all the way down, for an acoustic, ’60s-folk sound every bit as resonant as anything from the era. While, traditionally, it’s often his all-out rockers that resonate, these songs prove definitely that subtly is as much his ally as all-out attack.
Tacked on as a final bonus track, “The Wrestler” is an indispensable edition, a heady, resonant strummer ranking amongst Springsteen’s most classic compositions. “If you’ve ever seen a one-armed man punching at nothing but the breeze. If you’ve ever seen a one-armed man, you’ve seen me.” Say what you will about the album’s bumps and brambles; this song is a reminder that when he hits the mark, Springsteen’s words aren’t just resonant, they’re unmistakably eternal.