By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Bruce Springsteen has a dream.
He has a dream that one day, this rock-and-roll nation will rise up and live like it's 1965/1966 all over again.
He has a dream that our pop stars will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the RIAA-certified colors of their gold and platinum albums, but by how well they appropriate the spectral mid-'60s sounds of the Beach Boys, Byrds, Beatles, Roy Orbison, Phil Spector and even Ennio Morricone.
That's the prevailing musical message of Springsteen and the E Street Band's surprising new album, "Working on a Dream." Streaming this week on NPR.org and scheduled for release on Jan. 27, "Working on a Dream" is unlike any of the previous 15 studio sets in Springsteen's remarkably rich catalogue, inasmuch as it's the Jersey boy's first album in which style clearly trumps substance.
Springsteen is forever striving to blend profound lyrics with bracing rock-and-roll or folk, depending on his musical mood. But "Working on a Dream" is full of lyrical missteps and half-realized ideas. The album doesn't go nearly as deep as you'd expect from one of rock's preeminent poets; Springsteen's lyrics tend to be overshadowed by the album's generally bright melodies and lush textures and sounds.
The sonic sum here is frequently something to behold, as in "Queen of the Supermarket," which begins simply, as a mid-tempo piano ballad, before adding everything from swelling strings and swirling Eastern-tinged guitar chords to stacked vocal harmonies and the rhythmic beep of an electronic cash register. It's a marvelous, majestic song, save for the lyrics, in which Springsteen goes shopping at a store "where aisles and aisles of dreams await you" -- specifically, where "a dream awaits in aisle number two" -- and winds up snatching a hidden-beauty metaphor from the clearance bin. (Leave it to the Boss to try to romanticize the mega-mart shopping experience.)
It's a recurring problem. "Surprise Surprise," for instance, is a devastatingly catchy power-pop song built around chiming, Byrdsian guitar chords and punched up with the sort of swirling keyboard line that might make Ray Manzarek beam with pride. It sounds like the best Traveling Wilburys song you've never heard, only with strings and, unfortunately, the sort of lyrics that Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, et al., might have laughed out of the room: "And when the sun comes out tomorrow, it'll be the start of a brand new day/And all that you have wished for I know will come your way."
On the driving rocker "My Lucky Day," over ringing guitars and piano fills, Springsteen plays with the old love-is-a-gamble motif, but can only come up with this couplet: "Well, I lost all the other bets I made/Honey, you're my lucky day."
Much better is "This Life," which features some of the best vocal harmonies this side of the Beach Boys and includes one of the album's most memorable lyrics: "I finger the hem of your dress/My universe at rest."
Throughout the album, Springsteen sounds relatively content -- a far cry from his state of mind 16 months ago, when the bitter and oft-bleak E Street album "Magic" was released. Then, Springsteen was downright disturbed by the realities of this American life under the watch of George W. Bush. Now, he sounds optimistic and occasionally giddy. But it's hardly a celebration of Obama-era political change: "Working on a Dream" is an apolitical album that goes for subtlety over Big Statements as Springsteen, at 59, considers personal relationships and the passage of time.
On "Kingdom of Days," Springsteen ponders love and mortality and how romance can almost make time stand still, singing: "I don't see the summer as it wanes/Just the subtle change of light upon your face." Lyrically, it's one of the album's more moving songs. But it's also musically overwrought, with strings adding a thick coating of schmaltz and sending the whole thing smashing into the wall inside the tunnel of love.
Mortality looms over "The Last Carnival," the standout that comes near album's end. A gloriously bittersweet tribute to the late E Street Band organist Danny Federici, who died in April from melanoma, it's full of striking imagery and shot through with a haunting, echoing harmony vocal that sounds as if it's coming from the great beyond. "Hanging from the trapeze/My wrists waiting for your wrists," Springsteen sings. "Two daredevils high upon the wall of death."
The Boss is at his very best on the album-closing, Golden Globe-winning theme from "The Wrestler," on which he sings of struggle and survival over strummy acoustic guitar with some tinkling piano and buried backing vocals, but no stacked harmonies, no strings and no stabs at soaring grandeur. It's a stark, simple character study, and the most emotionally gripping song on the album. Funny thing that: Springsteen shines when he's trying to sound less like Brian Wilson, et al., and more like . . . Bruce Springsteen.
DOWNLOAD THESE: "The Last Carnival," "The Wrestler," "This Life"