Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Music Review: Working on a Dream by Bruce Springsteen

What if Obama lost? That’s the intriguing question we need to ask when listening to Bruce Springsteen’s sprawling new CD, Working on a Dream. Think about it: all the reviews, including this one, can’t help but look at the music and lyrics of this CD from the prism of an Obama presidency. But the genesis of the songs started in the late stages of the Bush presidency.

According to Springsteen’s notes to fans, the new album started in the last days of his previous record, 2007’s Magic. “We recorded a song called "What Love Can Do." It was sort of a "love in the time of Bush" meditation. It was a great track but felt more like a first song of new record rather than something that would fit on Magic.” Producer Brendan O’Brien encouraged Springsteen to write more songs for a new record and, while initially hesitant, The Boss churned out an additional six songs before 2007 left us forever. They made demo tapes and agreed that they’d work on the new songs over the next year, while on tour, in an effort to catch the E Street Band at its creative and musical peak (as if they ever have a valley).

Here’s where my historian’s curiosity comes into play. Can you imagine The Grapes of Wrath without the Great Depression; or film noir without World War II; or even Springsteen’s own “Born in the U.S.A.” without Vietnam? No. You can’t divorce history from creativity and artistic expression. The first few songs written and recorded for Working on a Dream ("This Life," "My Lucky Day," "Life Itself," "Good Eye," and "Tomorrow Never Knows") are all, save one, grouped together in the track listing of the new CD. Coincidence? Probably not. What was Bruce thinking about and feeling when he wrote these songs?

For one thing, the waning days of 2007 was, for Bruce, a bleak time. How about these few random couplets from “What Love Can Do,” the first song written:
Well, now our truth lay shattered you stood at world's end

As the dead sun rose in view


When the bed you lie on is nails and rust

And the love you've given's turned to ashes and dust

Or how about these lines from “Life Itself”:
Why do the things that we treasure most, slip away in time
Till to the music we grow deaf, to God's beauty blind
Why do the things that connect us slowly pull us apart?
Till we fall away in our own darkness, a stranger to our own hearts 

Needless to say, pessimism holds sway in these songs. But that’s not to say the he was overly pessimistic. In the guise of relationship songs, Springsteen offers the remedy for the world’s ails: love, relationships, and friendship. As he writes in “My Lucky Day,” When I've lost all the other bets I've made/Honey you're my lucky day

The optimism is there. It’s just buried in the reality as Springsteen saw it back in 2007. And the optimism is always present in the music. It’s one of Springsteen’s best gifts as a songwriter: to be able to couch downbeat lyrics (“Dancing in the Dark,” “Born in the USA,” “Hungry Heart,” or “Badlands”) in upbeat music.

“This Life” is one of the most gorgeous songs Springsteen has ever recorded. Picking up where Magic’s “The Girls in Their Summer Clothes” left off, you get a distinct early 70s sensibility with a heaping helping of Phil Specter’s wall of sound. Like many established singers (David Bowie, Elton John, Elvis Costello), Springsteen’s vocal range is expanding, making a song like “This Life” much easier on the ears than it would have been twenty years ago. Taking a cue from Patti’s Scalfia’s latest album, Play it as it Lays, Springsteen layers the wah-wahs in the background chorus just like a great 1960s pop song would have. Toward the end of the song, as the chorus has the stage to themselves, the music could almost have been the soundtrack to a 1970s Coke commercial. And then Clarence Clemons’ sax blows heavenward with a radiant solo to fade out. Stunning.

But that’s nothing new for the E Street Band. These guys are the epitome of musical professionals. Clarence Clemons is no John Coltrane but the man plays whole notes on his sax like David Gilmour does on his guitar or k.d. lang does with her voice. There’s much more than meets the eye. Max Weinberg is not Neil Perth but he doesn’t need to be. I have always marveled how Max just lays down the beat, never flashy, but just, well, professional. And who can’t love Roy Bittan’s piano underneath everything, hearkening to memories of 1992 or 1984 or 1975? And the addition of Soozie Tyrell (violin; vocals) to the band since 2002’s The Rising is a nice, and welcome addition. But the most bittersweet quality of the album is Danny Federici’s organ playing. This album proved to be his last recording before he died of melanoma last year. And it is to him Springsteen dedicated the album.

So what about the songs Springsteen wrote during the 2008 election year? When you look at just the lyrics, the 2008 songs are a mixed lot. “Outlaw Pete,” with its eerily similar theme to KISS’ “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” tells the story of Pete who “At six months old he'd done three months in jail.” Oookay. The song, however, is a lovely western anthem around which a nice book or movie could be made. It’s got everything you need for a western legend song: strings, plaintive harmonica, and Springsteen trademark Glockenspiel. And the ending, where the legend is formed, is quite evocative and visual. Besides, this is a song that seeks to answer one of humankind’s most fundamental questions: can the true nature of a person ever be changed? Thankfully, Springsteen lets you answer the question yourself but he gives a peek into his own thinking.

Just like he did in 2004, Springsteen hit the campaign trail in 2008. Bruce’s actions rubbed many fans the wrong way, in 2004 and 2008. If you know anything about his background and lyrics, you always knew from whence he came. Now, he's just more overt about it. Which makes the title track of Working on a Dream a particularly interesting song. When did Springsteen write it? He debuted it at a late October Obama rally in Ohio and I, like many who first heard it, took it to be an Obama song. Might be. The song is pure optimism with lyrics buttressing the magical music coming out of the speakers. You tweak a few musical touches here and there and you get Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (without the glass breaking vocals, however).

There’s a buoyancy in all the songs of Working on a Dream that speaks to this moment in time, never mind when they were written. Just as presidents get the credit or blame for events on their watch, albums get tagged with the year of release. Working on a Dream was released in 2009, the very month in which our country’s leadership changed with a palpable a sense of optimism. For Springsteen and millions of Americans, hope has returned to this land. And it’s with these eyes and ears we listen to this new album by one of America’s greatest rock musicians.

Springsteen has chronicled America as he’s seen it and held up a mirror for us to gaze in and contemplate where we are. He did it in 1984 with his sing-a-long anthems reflecting our malaise of the 1970s. He did it via his own personal struggles and redemption in 1988 and 1992. And he helped us all cope in the aftermath of 9/11. Along the way, he’s told us stories about the folks left behind on the dust heap of history. Now, for those who rejoice in the opportunities an Obama presidency can bring, there is another anthem.

What if Obama lost? Makes you wonder if Springsteen would have released the album, doesn't it? Likely he would have but it certainly would have been received differently. The song "Working on a Dream" will be prophetic or ironic no matter what happens in the next few years. Who knows if we’ve hit bottom with this economic strife and persistent bad news. Who knows what larger conflicts will surely greet us. No matter what, we can look to the songs and music of Bruce Springsteen to help us through and make us smile even on a bad day. Think about it: given his political views, if even he was optimistic when he wrote and recorded the songs on Working on a Dream as the bottom began to fall out, there’s hope for us all.

1 comment:

eejut said...

Interesting review. I was quite mean about the album in my own views, but your take makes me want to give it another go.