CK Retro Review: Working On A Dream by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: May 22, 2014
I come to praise Working On A Dream, not to bury it. Maybe that makes me a lonely rider in the world of Springsteen analysis, but I love the looseness of this record, which shines through both on the out-there experiments and the more somber songs. The E Street Band sounds fully at home on loving throwbacks to 60’s pop and rock, while Bruce subtly constructs an overriding theme on the autumn years of life and all of the struggles and triumphs that go along with that time period as convincing as the youthful narratives he spun in the early days. Here is a song-by-song review.
13. “Tomorrow Never Knows”- No, it’s not a Beatles cover, although that psychedelic Revolver tune wouldn’t have totally out of place on this collection. Instead, it’s an acoustic shuffle that’s amiable enough but feels a bit underwritten.
12. “My Lucky Day”- The theme about taking a chance on love is one that’s been said many times before, including a few times by Bruce himself, but the hard-charging music, reminiscent of something that might be heard on The River, is effective. Props to Garry Tallent, who gets a chance to flex his muscles a bit more on this album than usual, for his nimble, melodic bass that propels this one.
11. “Good Eye”- I’m not sure straight blues is a strong point for The E Street Band; the rhythmic chops that they show on their soulful numbers sort of disappears here in favor of a more locked-in approach, to the detriment of the song. Springsteen, on the other hand, proves to be an expert blues belter, muscling out his lines as if trying to exorcise any demons temporarily lodging in his soul.
10. “Life Itself”- Although the whooshing chorus keeps trying to lighten this one up, the darker undercurrents of the verses and the moody music don’t really allow that to happen. The Byrds-like middle section with the backwards guitar is a bit out of left field compared to the rest, but it is intriguing.
9. “What Can Love Do”- Again, it’s a case of downcast verses and an anguished, almost desperate chorus, as Springsteen testifies on the power of love to cure even the worst ills. There is real sting in some of the imagery that Bruce uses in the verses, which makes his promise in the refrain all the more redemptive if he can indeed deliver.
8. “Working On A Dream”- It was probably miscast as the first single, which may be why the album seemed to fade from the public attention span faster than most Bruce releases. It is, however, a simple, affecting paean to resilience, with an Orbisonian tear in Springsteen’s voice that demonstrates just how hard that work can be.
7. “Queen Of The Supermarket”- The production sounds like something that the great songwriter Jimmy Webb might have spun back in the day, while the lyrics have some Randy Newman in them in the way they portray a character who borders on the unsavory as he leers at the checkout girl. It’s a bit wacky, and the f-bomb at the end is an uneasy fit with the orchestration, but there’s an honesty in the writing that sneaks up on you.
6. “Surprise, Surprise”- Some may find this slight, but that’s like saying early Beatles songs are slight. The optimism provides a real jolt, as does the lovely vocal interplay toward the end of the song. (On the whole, Working On A Dream is a treat for lovers of harmonies and sweet vocals.) Not every song has to solve the world’s problems. Some can just project good vibes into a world that needs them, and “Surprise, Surprise” does that better than most.
5. “This Life”- There’s a fine line between homage and copycatting. Springsteen and the band always seem to be on the right side of it on this album. The Pet Sounds open and the “ba-ba-ba” backing vocals near the end pay their respects to The Beach Boys, but it’s just a quick dip in the West Coast pool before we’re back on E Street thanks to Clarence Clemons wonderful solo. The narrator preoccupies himself with the heavens and spectral matters, realizing that there is nothing out there quite like what he’s found on Earth. The immortality mentioned in the bridge certainly seems doable in the midst of those beautiful harmonies.
4. “Outlaw Pete”- (Since I’ve had a lot of commentary in anticipation of this song already, I thought the best way to defend it would be to include the essay that accompanies the song in my new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs. So here’s an exclusive excerpt solely for my loyal readers.)
Bruce Springsteen made a bold choice by making “Outlaw Pete” the leadoff track for his 2009 album Working on a Dream. It’s rare that an artist as advanced in his career as Springsteen can release a song that genuinely sounds like nothing they have done before, but “Outlaw Pete” manages to be just such an outlier.
Such a drastic departure doesn’t necessarily have to lead to something that’s artistically effective, of course, and it seems that “Outlaw Pete” is a bit of a polarizing song among the rabid Springsteen faithful. Some fans took to derisively labeling it “Out to Pee” for the way that a segment of the crowd would head for the bathrooms whenever the E Street Band trotted it out on the tour supporting Working on a Dream.
If there are fans who have dismissed this fascinating track, they should reconsider. “Outlaw Pete” is full of musical daring, and it works lyrically whether you choose to hear it as a well-told tall tale of a legendary bandit or as a metaphor for the way that the tentacles of the past relentlessly spread into the present and the future.
Springsteen referenced the latter reading in a 2009 interview with Observer Music Monthly. “The past is never the past,” he said. “It is always present. And you better reckon with it in your life and in your daily existence, or it will get you. It will get you really bad. It will come and devour you, it will remove you from the present. It will steal your future and this happens every day.”
That quote shows that Springsteen feels that the old William Faulkner maxim (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”) doesn’t quite go far enough to explain the danger of it all. The title character in “Outlaw Pete” is emblematic of this, a man whose attempt to put his heinous past behind him is nothing but a fool’s errand.
The music that accompanies Outlaw Pete on his journey is one of Springsteen’s most ambitious concoctions. It’s a heady combination of Ennio Morricone spaghetti-western ambience and progressive rock drama. The song alternately recalls some of the more ornate productions of Jeff Lynne for ELO and the over-the-top thrills of modern rock adventurers Muse.
If nothing else, the song takes you on a ride, and even if it occasionally makes you queasy, it’s never less than invigorating. There are powerful hooks at every turn, from the elegiac guitars to the darting strings. It’s all very cinematic, which makes sense in a song that plays out like some bizarre Western.
In the early stages of the song, Springsteen describes Pete in such away as to make him seem like the Paul Bunyan of banditry, weaving exaggerated tales of both his criminal behavior as a child and his supernatural defiance of heavenly figures. The tone gets more realistic when Pete gives up his life of crime to settle down with his new wife and child on an Indian reservation. From that point, Springsteen’s tale plays out like a thriller, especially with the introduction of the bounty hunter Dan.
Dan represents the righteous revenge that Pete has coming to him, and even as the bad (or badder) guy wins the showdown, Dan’s dying words ring with icy truth that Pete cannot deny: “We cannot undo these things we’ve done.” So Pete rides off alone and takes a header with his horse off a mountain.
That strange finish is just another one of the daring turns this song takes. It’s as if Springsteen started off writing a John Ford movie and it transformed into one directed by David Lynch. The refrain “Can you hear me?” becomes especially haunting at song’s end, since Pete is now an apparition calling from limbo to warn the living against repeating his mistakes.
Those who feel “Outlaw Pete” is too much of a departure for Springsteen might not be listening closely enough. After all, the street races and gang fights that filled his early narratives were always larger than life; “Outlaw Pete” just offers that grandiosity in a different setting. You could even say that the ambiguous ending, whereby no one can be sure of Pete’s fate, is a throwback to the way that Zero and Blind Terry disappeared into the night way back when.
In any case, Springsteen’s ambition is part of what makes him such an enduring artist. Experimental curve balls like this exciting track are testaments to his refusal to live off past glories. After all, as “Outlaw Pete” clearly shows, a healthy relationship with the past is integral to peace of mind in the present.
3. “The Wrestler”- Springsteen gets so far in the head of Mickey Rourke’s character from the film of the same name that he must have identified with him somewhat. Otherwise this could have been a bloodless, almost anthropological kind of character study. The narrator asks for no forgiveness or sympathy. He doesn’t even try to articulate the insensate urges that push him to choose pain and misery over love and companionship. Still, he takes a strange sense of pride from the fact that his utter self-destruction provides fodder for entertainment, that his fast road to oblivion is a spectacle for those who pay their two bits. Even though it wasn’t written for the album, it fits beautifully as the tack-on track.
2. “The Last Carnival”- Danny Federici got on the traveling circus that is The E Street Band back in 1973. His death in 2008 inspired Springsteen to reach back to “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” writing this quasi-sequel as a tribute to his late friend. The basic gist is that the circus continues even as the vast hole left behind by the loss remains, a metaphor that rings true for anyone trying to move on from a devastating loss. Springsteen’s aching vocal is a thing of beauty, the carnival sounds (some conjured by Danny’s son Jason on accordion) haunt the edges of the narrative, and the final wail by the band really reaches you. Springsteen could have said goodbye any old way, but he really honors Federici with the ingenuity and heart behind this track.
1. “Kingdom Of Days”- A majestic love song, one of the best Springsteen has ever written, “Kingdom Of Days” speaks of a romance that still burns with the force of young love, even if it’s about two folks closer to senior citizen status than senior year. On other songs on the album, time ravages, sneers, and avenges. The couple in this song conquer time by coming to terms with it, robbing it of its power to harm. The chorus is simply beautiful, with the strings and horns providing the fanfare and the heavenly harmonies providing the heart. “We’ll laugh beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays” might be, in its way, one of the most romantic things the man has ever written, and you can take that to the bank, Baby Blue.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, but you can pre-order now at all major online booksellers.)