Obama’s Bard Dreams of Gold, Grabs Brass
Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Working on a Dream, is….
This is going to be difficult, so bear with me for a couple of minutes.
Bruce Springsteen is in his 60th year. For more than half his life, and two-thirds of my own, I’ve loved him to distraction, measured my private life by his public thresholds. He’s the only celebrity I regularly dream about. For 14 years I’ve written about his work, with only the rarest harsh word, in the Irish Times, Village magazine and (to the sound of gnashing teeth from unpersuaded but indulgent editors) here at CounterPunch.
Long story short: since I last weighed in here 16 months ago, with a review of Magic, the ‘relationship’ has been as rich as ever: our toddler made a thousand requests for ‘Buffalo Gals’; I saw a Christmas 2007 gig in Belfast with the E Street Band and my 12-year-old daughter, who usually prefers hip-hop but danced the night away; and Springsteen sang ‘No Surrender’ — the rock song, not the Ulster-loyalist slogan — in peaceful but still-Paisleyite East Belfast.
Then came May last year, when Bruce and the band came to Dublin, outdoors. On a warm Sunday evening, standing in the middle of a football field, just as the band kicked off I felt the back of my right leg turn wet. I turned around to see who had spilled the (warm) beer and saw a tall, scraggly-bearded, peacefully bemused man zipping up his fly. Luckily I was much less drunk than he was: he could only shrug, like Jesus to Pilate, when I asked him for a reason why I shouldn’t kill him. After a minute when my brain scrambled and he couldn’t muster the decency to at least move elsewhere, I dragged him 40 yards to the security guys. They ejected him, then pitied my plight and that of anyone who might have to stand beside me and my piss-soaked pants: they gave me wristbands that got my partner and me into ‘the pit’, the rather-roomier privileged zone near the stage.
So the silent piss-artist did me a favour. More than that: as the evening went on I came to believe, in my Catholic-atheist heart, that it was a benediction, because there was the real presence of Bruce just a few yards away, playing the gig of a lifetime, looking like he could bust with enjoyment of himself, in all that self’s contradictions, the rock-star and the genuine mensch, earnest and comic, solipsist and rabble-rouser, pushing-60 and sex machine. When the rain came, my second-baptism was complete and, trust me, this sinner had badly needed a wash.
That’s my story, just a fan’s love story. Meanwhile, out where the rest of you could see him, Bruce was doing the whole Obama thing. Fine, good, Yes We Can indeed, mazel tov, you do what you gotta do. Fans started to think it looked a bit cynical by November, though, when politics and product met at the crossroads. Super Bowl halftime show? Oh dear. A new album already — its release date nestled between The Inauguration Starring Barack Obama and Featuring Bruce Springsteen and the big game? Hmm, okay. A certified super-sensitive Oscar-ready movie song? Nice for him. The title track of the album, ‘Working on a Dream’, apart from surgically conjoining his own two lifelong themes, obviously referencing Obama and All That History and debuting during NFL on NBC the week after the election? Huh. A(nother) greatest-hits album on sale in January and being sold as a Wal-Mart exclusive? Wal-Mart? Wal-Mart?? Get outta here.
And then all this PR stuff about what a blast it was for a change to work on an album quickly without all the, you know, preparation and worry that he used to do (“What, me precious?”) and the avoidance of the obvious conclusion that someone is moving fast to cash in on high visibility and, sure, who wouldn’t, but this is supposed to be Bruce Springsteen whose shit don’t stink.
And I guess it don’t, because this week the new album is streaming free and exclusive on the website of — wait for it — NPR. All’s right with the world, then. So what about this album?
The good news is: brevity. Like the last one, Working on a Dream is vinyl-LP length without bonus tracks. (That’s nice, though oddly enough the pricy vinyl version has a bonus track and thus is stretched out improbably over two discs.) Really you can do without the bonus tracks, unless you’ve “ever seen a one-legged dog makin’ his way down the street” (‘The Wrestler’). No, I didn’t think you had.
Anyway, deep breath, here’s the bad news. At this point I can’t find much coherence on the record to guide my writing about it, apart from a thread that says something vaguely uplifting like, “Life’s a tough old journey sometimes, but stick with it, keep workin’, keep playin’, keep lovin’, keep dreamin’, it can be good too.” So I’ll go through the just-my-opinion notes track by track.
Outlaw Pete: It’s reminiscent of one of Bob Dylan’s long legend-y westerns but with more obvious portent and overblown orchestration, breaking up the rhythm in the way Bob wouldn’t. Our sins catch up with us, across the deserts and mountains and plains, seemingly, but our beautiful half-Navajo daughter lives on, bathing in the river. Maybe mock-autobiographical, or a metaphor for something important — there are a few existential cries, and the backing vocalists significantly hum Kiss’s ‘I Was Made for Loving You’ — but just as I can’t be bothered unpicking Dylan’s gunslinger yarns, this one stays literal for me, and not without its bright cinemascope moments (soundtrack by ersatz Morricone) along the epic eight-minute way.
My Lucky Day: I wasn’t impressed with this bland love-rocker on its early release, but it’s enriched in the album context if you use it to fill in Outlaw Pete’s gaps. (Yep, in eight minutes there are still gaps.) So imagine Outlaw Pete is the gambler and he’s singing to his Navajo woman: “You’re my lucky day/Well I lost all the other bets I made.” The message is you gotta keep playing to win. At last, gambling-addicts have a new anthem.
Working on a Dream: The Obamaniacal title track had me worried, when it sprang out in November, that we’d get a whole album of Baracknaphilia. It’s like ‘Happy Days are Here Again’ as sung by Roy Orbison, which means The Hope acknowledges The Pain. “I’m working on a dream, though it can feel so far away… Our love will make it real someday.” The whistling-break isn’t as corny as it might seem: whistling in pop music carries plenty of melancholy with it, from ‘White Christmas’ to ‘Jealous Guy’. Then there’s the wonderful False Hope whistling of Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, but Bruce, the Bard of Obama, would hardly be alluding to that, would he? Moreover, he is relying on us continuing to buy him in his working-man’s shirt, at least metaphorically. He wouldn’t dare sing, as Randy Newman did on last year’s ‘A Piece of the Pie’, “The rich are getting richer — I should know.”
Queen of the Supermarket: Are you kidding? (Okay, granted, you probably are.) “I’m in love with the queen of the supermarket… The dream awaits in aisle number 2.” The sense-of-place is a mess: the “queen” is “behind the counter”? And bagging? In an aisle? Have you been in a supermarket, Bruce? Or is the guy in love with all the women in the store? This is by way of contrast to Magic’s ‘I’ll Work for Your Love’, where the love interest was a bar waitress and the detail was sharp and playful. It’s almost saved by the last lines, despite some awkward scansion: “As I lift my groceries into my car/ I turn back for a moment and catch a smile/ That blows this whole fuckin’ place apart.” The climax breaks the song’s profound torpor not only with its, um, cussedness, but by casting us suddenly back to a young Bruce, the singer of ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Badlands’ who ached to see shit blown apart. (It also suggests he parked in the handicapped zone if he can see her smile from his car.)
What Love Can Do: Lots, apparently. Just a hint of cock-rock (“Let me show you what love can do” indeed) but not enough to start the Viagra jokes. It’s vaguely political, sometimes indecipherable psycho-babble — not characteristic of the album, by the way, where most of the lyrics are all-too-clear — unredeemed by Springsteen’s description of it as “love in the time of Bush.” No, ‘Fuck the Pain Away’ it ain’t.
This Life: Makes ‘What Love Can Do’ sound like ‘Johnny B. Goode’. The only justification I can hear for its inclusion on any record that demands cash-payment from listeners is that it passingly echoes, musically, John Lennon’s ‘#9 Dream’. (Ah, you may say I’m working on a dream….) Again, a far-better Magic song comes to mind, ‘Girls in Their Summer Clothes’; ‘This Life’ has a similar soaring melody, when Springsteen can locate it, before descending into a Brian Wilson tribute. The best lyric in ‘This Life’ is, I swear: “I finger the hem of your dress/ My universe at rest.”
Good Eye: Now we’re talking. It hasn’t been everyone’s cup of tea, or quart of moonshine, but Bruce’s recent work has established that he can do American roots music. This is simple, nasty blues: “I had my good eye to the dark/ And my blind eye to the sun.” He sings it into a bullet microphone, as he did with ‘Reason to Believe’ on recent tours, and the distortion, well, blows the whole fucking place apart. So I got over the fact that, despite its title, the song isn’t actually about baseball.
Tomorrow Never Knows: Not that other John Lennon ditty of the same name. It’s country-folk acoustic stuff, a moment of Dylan’s ‘I Want You’ then quickly switching to John Prine’s ‘Love, Love, Love’. Which is all to the good, until and unless you start comparing the lyrics of those songs to this one. So don’t. Enjoy the song’s pretty simplicity, and its celebration of… pretty simplicity. It’s a little one for the recession.
Life Itself: Not a great song — the sense of too-quick writing lingers, with Springsteen’s voice technically fine but the meter and phrasing half-assed. Still it is probably as close to a truly interesting lyric as there is on the album. For one thing, there’s another Beatles connection: George Harrison had a song of the same name — about God. Springsteen’s is about an illicit lover (God?). The first verse captures something of the special obsession such a relationship entails, the rest sees things fall apart as such relationships do. The “I can’t make it without you” refrain sounds, at first, like another love-cliché, but by the end there’s a sense that neither party is going to survive. Especially if, as a Bruce-anorak, you hear the echoes of ‘Highway 29’ and its car-crash finale.
Kingdom of Days: This simultaneously swells and tinkles — in short, arch-MOR. It seems like the antidote to ‘Life Itself’: a middle-aged couple surveys a happy realm, “our kingdom of days” where they, ahem, “count the wrinkles and grays.” It’s an okay metaphor, but it sounds like more work was done on the string section than on the lyrics. The best: “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I do/ You whisper ‘Then prove it, then prove it, then prove it to me, baby blue.’” Now you can start the Viagra jokes.
Surprise, Surprise: Who knew the Archies had re-formed? With Roger McGuinn on guitar? This is an ostensibly ‘fun’ Sixties-pop birthday song, with some Big Lyrics starting in verse 2 — “In the hollow of the evening, as you lay your head to rest,” that sort of thing — before the music pays another visit to Roy Orbison. The album is released near E Street Band organist Danny Federici’s birthday — he died of cancer last April and would be 59 on Friday — and there are ample hints in it this song is about death, and about hope for a happy re-birthday, a resurrection. Which sets up the next one….
The Last Carnival: This one is definitely sung to, for and about Danny: E Street fans will be at least somewhat moved by it, and others should appreciate the deftness and sincerity of the rock ’n’ roll-as-circus metaphor. Federici arguably contributed most to the carnival-fairground sound of the early E Street records. The song asks: “Where are you now, my darling Billy?” — a thought that reaches 35 years back to ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’, and 70 years back to an Almanac Singers anti-war song and centuries further again via them and Jerry Lee Lewis into the depths of the folk tradition. Mostly spare and acoustic, it’s easily the most delicate and accomplished song here, and perhaps something of a coda for the E Street Band on a studio-recorded release.
And that’s it. Okay, first impressions aren’t always the best, but this is pop music and should be adept at making first impressions. I’m especially wary of hyperbole at this early stage of listening — there is a hook or two that might grow on me — but, yes, off the top of my head I can’t think of a less plausible 11 minutes on a Springsteen disc than the sequence from ‘Queen of the Supermarket’ through ‘This Life’. Take those minutes out and I’d promote the album to ‘tolerable’.
Springsteen the notorious perfectionist is now seeing what it feels like, and earns like, to toss out a CD. I’ve no ideological commitment to slow record-making, but Working on a Dream is the clearest evidence to date that its suits Springsteen best, at least with his own songs. This album is not merely Unimportant — I’m relieved he hasn’t made another political album, given the rich opportunity this historic moment offers for icky liberalism. At times it isn’t competent; it’s not clever, it’s not moving, it’s not thought-provoking, it’s not ass-shaking; there’s hardly a character, an image or an observation that sticks in the brain. It is untouched by greatness. Its best moments (as opposed to its ridiculous ones, which have their own crazy charm) come seemingly almost by accident — most poignantly, the accident of Danny Federici’s death.
I suspect many other reviews will be more indulgent, because of what are, for Springsteen, poppy novelties. Often there’s a decent beat or a grabby opening or an attractive soundscape (attractive through small earphones or in a car, not quite so much on a decent hi-fi, but that’s the way of the production world these days), sometimes lush Sixties-plus-strings-and-throw-in-a-choir-of-angels. That’s fine by me: Magic was steeped in dense musical nostalgia. But on this album half the tunes feel unfinished, and most of the lyrics just pass the time ’til the next big-budget burst of pop pastiche from producer Brendan O’Brien. Mostly it’s hard to believe I’m listening to the band I saw just a few months ago, blowing the whole fucking place apart.
It’s okay, though. These things happen. History will record that 2008 messed with a lot of people’s minds. Sure, doesn’t the album’s cover picture come right out and tell us that Bruce’s head is in the clouds? (And, hey, isn’t that another John Lennon reference?)
I don’t even have to reach for the old LPs and CDs for comfort, because Springsteen has driven out of tight artistic jams before, and I reckon the next one is going to be just brilliant. Take your time, Bruce.
Working on a Dream is on the NPR website this week and starts being officially released on Friday.