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Bruce Springsteen’s authoritarian nickname may seem incongruous with his populist image, but at least it’s an honest assessment of his status. Who, besides the Boss, has the clout to peg an album release to both a performance at the presidential inauguration and a Super Bowl halftime show?
Still, in the last few decades, Springsteen has cultivated his prole persona almost as carefully as his music. Take the title of his latest release, Working on a Dream—a prime example of Springsteen skillfully pushing himself as the rock poet laureate of the ham ’n’ egger set. It’s a perfect combination of blue-collar grit and artsy ethereality. We can only presume the name edged out The Whimsical Wage Earner and Clockin’ In at the Cloud Factory.
While the uplifting 9/11 jam “The Rising” was a regular number when the Boss was on the campaign trail for Barack Obama, Working on a Dream’s title track might have been an even better fit. It’s easy to imagine the lyrics, “Rain pourin’ down, I swing my hammer/My hands are rough from working on a dream,” accompanying a commercial depicting young people taking up Obama’s call for civil service. But the would-be inspirational message is ultimately undercut by lethargic music, despite the inclusion of cheery whistling and glockenspiel. It’s as if all that building of hopes and wishes has enervated Springsteen so much that he can’t be bothered to punch up the chorus.
That moment of fatigue aside, Springsteen sounds the happiest he’s been in decades on Working on a Dream. Nowhere is this jubilation more evident than on the album’s strongest track, “My Lucky Day.” There is no mistaking the E Street Band’s presence here, whether it’s Max Weinberg’s rollicking drumming, Roy Bittan’s rowdy barrelhouse piano, or Clarence Clemons’ well-timed rooftop sax bursts. Only a hardened cynic (or someone younger than 33) could fail to be moved by the way the song recalls the group’s classics.
Springsteen is so gleeful on “This Life” that he accurately apes the Beach Boys’ organ and harmonies. Seems the members of Animal Collective aren’t the only ones rifling through Brian Wilson’s pockets. A more restrained existence is also evident on the album-opening cowboy epic “Outlaw Pete.” The lavish string and horn arrangements help exaggerate the Pecos Bill–style hyperbole of the lyrics: “At 6 months old he’d done three months in jail/He robbed a bank in his diapers/And little bare baby feet/All he said was ‘Folks, my name is Outlaw Pete.’” Although the track is eight minutes long, it seems like only half that amount of time has passed before the song reaches its lonesome, unrestrained guitar outro.
If the rest of the songs on Working on a Dream were as good as “Outlaw Pete,” “My Lucky Day,” and “This Life,” it would easily be the best Springsteen album since Born in the U.S.A. However, Brendan O’Brien’s production coats songs such as “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Kingdom of Days” in a slick veneer that robs them of their virility. Everyman Bruce, of course, distances himself from the gloss job. On the album’s accompanying DVD, he can be seen giving O’Brien instruction on the sound he’s after: “Sloppy, but not sloppy” and “I’m looking for a little dissonance at the end,” he tells his producer. It’s as if Springsteen is telling his fans, “Don’t blame me for the commercial sound—if it weren’t for these suits and fancy producers, I’d just stick a cassette of home recordings in a lunch pail and give it to you.”
When the songwriting is overly polished, however, Springsteen can’t really point a finger outward. One way that he has historically maintained a rapport with the common man is by using people’s names, usually female, in his songs. A recent sidebar in New York magazine helpfully tallied that he has dropped the name “Mary” 53 times during his career. “Janey” was second place with 23 occurrences. It’s odd, then, that Working on a Dream is almost completely devoid of such proper nouns. The lovestruck lyrics of “Life Itself” (“You felt so good to me baby, good as life itself/You were life itself, rushing over me”) could use the specificity of a girl’s name to ground them.
“The Last Carnival” is the only other song besides “Outlaw Pete” to use somebody’s first name, and Springsteen makes it count. He intones, “Where have you gone, my handsome Billy?” using “Billy” to refer to Dan Federici, a longtime E Street Band organist who died of melanoma last year. Federici, to whom the album is dedicated, played on some of the album’s songs before his death, and his son Jason plays the accordion (one of Federici’s favorite instruments) on “The Last Carnival.”
The song serves as a sequel of sorts to “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” from 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. Like its predecessor, “The Last Carnival” uses a traveling circus as a metaphor for life on the road in a rock ’n’ roll band. Only this time, Springsteen sings “We’ll be riding the train without you tonight” and his heartfelt emotion overcomes the deficiency of the hackneyed greasepaint metaphor. Both “The Last Carnival” and bonus track “The Wrestler,” the Goldon-Globe winner from the movie of the same name, serve as somber counterweights to the joyous vibe that pervades the rest of the album.
Apart from a few production quibbles and some lyrical laziness, Working on a Dream is a solid album that both provides memorable tunes and meticulously maintains Springsteen’s common-man character. The only real exception, on both fronts, is “Queen of the Supermarket,” a hokey tale of Springsteen falling for a grocery store clerk.
The song is a cornpone attempt to reconnect with the hoi polloi that borders on parody and pales in comparison with an earlier retail-crush rocker, “Customer,” by the Replacements. Perhaps Springsteen is using the threat of a shopping romance to make sure that Patti Scialfa doesn’t send him to Whole Foods to buy arugula any time soon.
For the song’s climax, Springsteen sings, “As I lift my groceries into my cart/I turn back for a moment and catch a smile/That blows this whole fucking place apart.” Unfortunately, the only explosion here is the poor listener’s busted gut. Of course, Springsteen’s gaffe only offers further proof that he’s fallible, just like the rest of us.