Shrouded in ridiculous record company intrigue it may have been, but Bruce Springsteen is a savvy enough operator to have streamed his new album in its entirety to coincide with his appearance at the We Are One Obama Inaugural Celebration concert anyway.
The headlines might have all been about Obama and Springsteen (no musician has campaigned more tirelessly for the new US President than the Boss), but does the new political upswell in America have any impact on Brucie’s tried-and-trusted musical ways?
Yes, is the honest answer. Working On A Dream is the Boss’s most exuberant and pop-orientated album for a long time. It is as if the swell of goodwill sweeping across America on the back of Obama’s presidential victory has freed up something deep down within The Boss himself. True, recent albums have had their moments of driving pop but this listener couldn’t help feeling it was all a little bit forced and pandered to a certain segment of the market.
There is no pandering here, with Springsteen and the trusty E Street Band rocking and rolling with free abandon and sounding like they thoroughly enjoyed every single moment recording the album.
This is also the first time that Springsteen has released back to back albums since the one-two gut punch of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. I am of course discounting 1992’s Human Touch and Lucky Town, because they were recorded at the same sessions and, frankly, because they weren’t very good.
Truly the old boy has found a new lease of life. Magic was a strong album but its sombre mood was a reflection of our troubled times. Working On A Dream was recorded during Obama’s ascendancy to the highest political office in the world, and the sense of rebirth and new dreams appears to have seeped into Springsteen’s songwriting.
This is an album liberally festooned with strings and big vocal choruses, harking back to the Born To Run era. The opening Outlaw Pete is a bold move. Magic opened with the thumping rock song Radio Nowhere, but here Springsteen opts to essay an eight-minute spaghetti western track full of bold melodic stops and starts.
Curiously, the rest of the album sticks to sub-five minute songs after this initial foray. My Lucky Day and the title track burst out of the speakers with tub thumping drums, sweeping keyboards and soaring vocals, although it has to be said that Brendan O’Brien’s production sounds curiously muted on both tracks.
O’Brien’s work may be of variable quality throughout the album, but the lush textures pay testament to the imaginative keyboard skills of the great Danny Federici, who died in April 2008 during recording sessions. It is touching that his son Jason was also invited to appear on the album.
Tracks such as Queen Of The Supermarket, What Love Can Do and Surprise, Surprise nod to mid-’70s Springsteen, and all are unbridled, good-time romps that confirm that the 2009 model Bruce is concentrating more on matters of the heart than matters of state.
The album becomes more subdued on the final tracks. The desolate Life Itself is the first marker that demons continue to stalk Springsteen’s world, while Kingdom Of Days and The Last Carnival are restrained beasts in comparison to what has gone before.
Curiously, the final song is listed as a bonus track. The Wrestler is Bruce in acoustic mode and also features in the great Mickey Rourke movie of the same name. The song’s examination of respect, loss and redemption is arguably Working On A Dream’s finest hour, although it provides an oddly downbeat coda to the album (vinyl editions carry on with an additional track, A Night With The Jersey Devil)
Working On A Dream looks set to lay down a new marker in Springsteen’s career, indicating a progression to a brighter and more optimistic songwriting worldview. As such, the parallels with Barack Obama ascending to the US Presidency remain striking.