Monday, December 6, 2010

Monday With The Boss - Part 16: Working on a Dream

 And here we are with the most recent Springsteen release, Working on a Dream. The album was released on January 27th, 2009. It presented material that was viewed as a direct continuation of the Magic sessions, and Brendan O'Brien once again served as Producer.

To say that the fanbase was disappointed with Working on a Dream would be a fair assessment. It represents probably the single greatest "left turn," in terms of style and tone, that Springsteen has ever released. Not that there weren't hints. There are several tracks on Magic, notably Girls in Their Summer Clothes and Your Own Worst Enemy, that echo the style that dominates this album.

I, personally, feel like the goal here was to create an album that sounded like a 1960's pop record, there's so many tracks that feel like they echo The Beach Boys, or The Byrds. It's a far more ethereal sound that anything we've ever heard on a Springsteen record. Far more lush and enveloping, rather that that driving energy that we've come to expect from Springsteen backed by the E-Street Band.

A lot of hay was made over the lyrical content, but again, I think he was shooting for a pop record, not unlike what he grew up listening to on the Jersey shore. Yeah, Queen of the Supermarket has kinda silly lyrics, but, man, it's evocative. I also think that the whole song is more than a little tongue-in-cheek, which makes the consternation some fans had over this track incredibly silly to me. Fact is, I love it, I think it's gorgeous, and one of the best on the album.

That said, there is more than a little truth to the claim that the lyrics are slight. I mean, I never thought I'd see that day that Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band recorded a birthday song. So, that's odd, but I've always tried to be a fan that was about taking in what the artist has to offer, rather than feeling it has to be something I expect. Yeah, yeah, I know...that sounds like I'm saying I'm a "better" fan than others, but really, I just like to see/hear what's turning my favorite artists on. I try not to have preconceived notions of what an artist "should" create.

That said, along those lines, I was amused by one message board post about the album that said some to the effect of, "how could Little Steven let him do this?!?!" Which I thought was just asinine, and displayed a bit of ignorance. Little Steven Van Zandt loves, loves, LOVES 60's pop music. I read several interviews where he wished Bruce would make that kind of album. I bet Steven ADORED making Working on a Dream.

All that aside, Working on a Dream is, frankly, a letdown. It would be hard not to be coming off of a great record like Magic. When you have an album like Magic, that re-asserts the artist as a significant cultural force, to turn around and, in extremely short order, issue a work that, admittedly by design, is far more lightweight, it can't help but throw a spotlight on the weaknesses of the latter work. "Weaknesses" may be too harsh a term, honestly. Working on a Dream is, again, in my humble opinion, simply not intended to resonate in the way Magic does.

...But we sorta expected it to.

For myself, I found that the tracks I most strongly hooked into were the ones that were the most lightweight. The aforementioned Queen of the Supermarket, My Lucky Day and What Love Can Do are all great pop songs. And there's a whole swath of songs that veer toward the sappy, This Life, Life Itself, Tomorrow Never Knows and Kingdom of Days all head that way. Outlaw Pete is a cute little opener (maybe a bit too similar to Kiss' I Was Made for Lovin' You), that just drags on, and on, and on, until the fun of it is bled dry. I couldn't really even imagine what the thought process there was. Likewise, the title track is just kinda...Meh. Really, part of the problem is that it's just too nakedly an attempt to create a Obama rally song. There's no fire to it.

Honestly, the best two track on the record come at the end, and are the darkest,most traditionally "Springsteen" songs. The Last Carnival, a tribute to E-Street founder Danny Federici, is simply gorgeous, and completely fitting to "Phantom" Dan. The final bonus track, The Wrestler. from the movie of the same name, is, for me, hands down the best song on the album. It's so evocative of both the film and Micky Rourke's character, and finds the same nobility that the film itself hits.

What a damn shame it was declared ineligible for an Oscar.

The long and the short of it is that I think Working on a Dream is a fine album, but the fact that it aims for a completely different target from basically anything else in Springsteen's catalog makes it difficult to really get your mind around. God knows, it's extremely cool to see a veteran artist take a vastly different stylistic turn late in their career (and it is late in Bruce's career, no way around that). Again, something you won't ever see The Rolling Stones, for example, do. Still, that makes it feel kind of like the red-headed stepchild.

...And, with that, all good, or diverting, or annoying, or hopelessly fannish, things must come to an end.

This certainly won't be the last "Monday With The Boss," but, as of this entry, the entire catalog of Springsteen studio albums has been exhausted. So, I'm certain to revive this feature whenever a new CD is released, but, as a weekly feature, it's days are over.

There may be specials, as well. I mean, we haven't ever touched upon Tracks, the 18 Tracks sampler of the same, or The Promise, offering outtakes from Bruce's career. Nor have I written about the six live albums, or the seven live DVD videos available. There's material that could be covered, but, especially in the case of the live material, you'll get to a level of fanboy wankery and obsession that I truly doubt any general reader would want to endure. Plus, there's so much material overlap between the audio and video live releases, it would be silly to separate them. It just seems like a lot to tackle, especially when the meat of the matter is the albums.

Bottom line, I'm not going to stop writing about Springsteen. I expect I'll have a blog on The Promise sooner, rather than later, but it's such a massive set, it's taking a long time to process. It'll come, but it takes time.

Maybe I'll actually make goon on my promise/threat, and start one of these series about the Rush catalog...

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