Working on a Dream
John Metzger's #8 album for 2009
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2009, Volume 16, #2
Written by John Metzger
Tue February 24, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
Lately, whenever he has felt it was time to begin working on a new album with the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen has opted to take producer Brendan O’Brien into the studio with him. On paper, their pairing has always made sense. Yet, the fruits of their labor often have clouded the issue because both The Rising and Magic failed to capitalize fully upon the strength of their union. Instead, Springsteen and O’Brien appeared to be uncertain about how to proceed together, and their hesitancy led to the overall feeling of disconnection that floated through the arrangements and melodies of Springsteen’s songs. Although these endeavors had their moments — and Magic undeniably built upon its predecessor — they also left listeners with the impression that Springsteen and O’Brien were searching for something as they worked toward a goal that remained just outside their reach. Working on a Dream, Springsteen’s latest effort, however, finds the duo turning the corner. While it isn’t a perfect endeavor, it does go a long way, at least, toward putting their collaborations into perspective.
O’Brien’s career has followed a typical path. After Stone Temple Pilot’s Core — which he helped guide to fruition — became utterly inescapable, he became firmly established as a producer, rather than simply an engineer. Through his work with arena-rock bands such as Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine, he developed and perfected an approach that has leant itself quite well to a generation of rock stars and music fans who have embraced low-fidelity playback devices. The iPod, in particular, has wiped clean all of the advances in aural technology that Alan Parsons had set in motion when he mixed Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, let alone the groundbreaking textures that George Martin applied to The Beatles’ compositions. As a result, the industry has slid backward to that awkward moment in the 1960s when AM radio ruled the land and monophonic and stereophonic recordings were competing for attention.
Springsteen frequently has taken solace from the music that was made during this era. The countless singles that sprang from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Roy Orbison’s songs for the brokenhearted, and even The Beach Boys’ masterpiece Pet Sounds were all designed to be heard not on expensive, surround sound systems but rather through the tinny, static-filled speakers of a car or kitchen radio. It’s safe to say that everything Springsteen ever has done with the E Street Band has been built around the idea of recapturing the magic of these glory-filled moments from pop’s illustrious heyday. After all, his albums customarily have been filled with sounds that have been stacked on top of one another — in addition to the guitars, saxophones, drums, and keyboards of the E Street Band, horns, strings, and glockenspiel also have been featured time and again within his arrangements. Likewise, in concert, his touring outfit has grown considerably over the years, culminating most recently with the colossal confederation of musicians that he assembled to support him during his halftime set at the Super Bowl.
Aside from the fun that he obviously appears to be having — he also drafted a gospel choir to join him during his appearance at the We Are One concert that preceded the inauguration of Barack Obama — there is a reason why Springsteen has been turning the E Street Band’s high-profile gigs into complete spectacles, and it has less to do with marketing Working on a Dream than many might suspect. In fact, the oversized staging of his shows dovetails with the grandiose textures that he and O’Brien conjured for the endeavor. From the arrangement they applied to the epic tale of Outlaw Pete to Kingdom of Days’ symphonic majesty, Working on a Dream is bursting at the seams with ideas. It unquestionably is the culmination of Springsteen and O’Brien’s collective vision. In effect, they have recreated Spector’s Wall of Sound to suit their own purpose, and they want to celebrate their victory in a big way. Without a doubt, Working on a Dream is the best effort Springsteen has made with the E Street Band in decades, yet it also is a slightly bigger triumph for the producer than it is for the artist. To put it simply, the effort — good as it is — just can’t compete with Springsteen’s classics — The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, Born to Run, and Darkness on the Edge of Town — nor do its songs conjure moods or paint scenes as vividly as Thunder Road, Jungleland, and Sandy (4th of July, Asbury Park).
Even so, it immediately is apparent that O’Brien finally has reignited Springsteen’s creative hunger. Working on a Dream not only is the most eclectic outing in Springsteen’s canon, but, for the first time since Nebraska, Springsteen also sounds as if he is trying to break a mold — or at least broaden it — rather than continue to be trapped inside one. As a result, the haze of uncertainty that had kept Springsteen and O’Brien from achieving their musical goals on The Rising (and, to a lesser degree, on Magic) has dissipated, and this, in turn, has brought the grand experiment of their collaborative pursuits into focus.
There is no doubt that Springsteen’s superstar status has its advantages. Employing a bigger budget than he had at his disposal in the 1970s, Springsteen, with O’Brien’s assistance, used Working on a Dream to pay tribute to his influences like never before. More than a hint of Orbison’s output drifts through the title track and My Lucky Day. Meanwhile, Beatle-esque touches creep into Queen of the Supermarket, and Byrds-ian flavors dominate the landscape of Life Itself. Elsewhere, the country-rock groove of Tomorrow Never Knows bears traces of Bob Dylan’s style, while Surprise, Surprise is pure, undiluted ’60s pop. Moving from a cut like This Life, which clearly was modeled after Brian Wilson’s work on Pet Sounds, into the driving blues-rock fury of Good Eye ought to be jarring, but strangely enough, the transition is remarkably smooth. The reason, first and foremost, is that everything on Working on a Dream is fed through a replica of Spector’s Wall of Sound, and the resulting presentation is larger than life. The other factor is the endeavor’s overarching narrative, for which no other arrangements would have served the same purpose nearly as well.
It is impossible for a songwriter to separate his personal life from his output. Every facet of his personality as well as all of his experiences inevitably filter, in one way or another, into his lyrics. This is especially true of someone like Springsteen, simply because his immensely high profile places most of what he does beneath the white-hot glare of a spotlight. His recent marital troubles and the premature death of the E Street Band’s longtime keyboard player Danny Federici are, perhaps, the two biggest issues that have been weighing upon him of late. Not surprisingly, these themes seep into every nook and cranny of Working on a Dream.
Most of Working on a Dream was completed prior to Federici’s death, and The Last Carnival is the only song that deals directly with his passing. In retrospect, however, the track informs and illuminates other aspects of the endeavor. It was Federici, for example, who played the glockenspiel on Springsteen’s classic albums, and the instrument’s prominent return — at the hands of Springsteen, rather than Federici — provides a fitting tribute to the E Street Band’s departed organist. The Last Carnival also twists the meaning behind tunes like Outlaw Pete — which details a man’s attempts to outrun his fate — and Good Eye — a cut that is, at least in part, about not taking life for granted. Within the turbulence of the latter selection, Springsteen also seems to offer an apology of sorts to his wife Patti Scialfa, while the rest of the effort boasts material that highlights the redemptive power of love, thereby allowing the effort to stand as a full-fledged pledge of devotion to their reconciliation. In other words, Working on a Dream provides the happy ending to the anguish, anger, and feelings of betrayal that Scialfa poured into her 2007 effort Play It as It Lays.
With the exception of The Wrestler — the song of perseverance in the face of hardship that Springsteen penned for the Mickey Rourke film that shares its title — Working on a Dream is an album that has been meticulously produced. Nevertheless, because it came together quickly, in a spontaneous burst of creativity, the set also packs the energetic punch of Springsteen’s early endeavors. Beneath the glistening layers of instrumentation, tracks like My Lucky Day and What Love Can Do harken back to the exuberant rock ’n‘ roll of Born to Run and The River. Like many artists, Springsteen has had a tendency to want to revisit his old ideas and look for ways in which to improve them. When he reunited the E Street Band to make The Rising, however, he seemed to be stuck in the past. With Working on a Dream, he once again appears to be moving forward.
52nd Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance
Working on a Dream
52nd Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Producer of the Year, Non-Classical
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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