Tag-Team Review: Bruce Springsteen, Working on a Dream
Steve Kozel: Working On A Dream starts with the eight-minute Western epic, "Outlaw Pete," which chronicles the life of a man seemingly born on the wrong side of the law. Springsteen lays this plain in the first verse with all the hyperbole of a good ol' fashioned tall tale: "At six months old he'd done three months in jail / He robbed a bank in his diapers and little bare baby feet."
Now, Bruce has kicked off many a record with memorable bombast ("Badlands", "Born In The USA," "The Ties That Bind," "Lonesome Day"), and he's also been known to set an album's tone with some opening track balladry ("Thunder Road," "Nebraska"). But the choice to open his latest record with this hokey, overcooked, and melodramatic ode to a remarkably generic character strikes me as quite the head-scratcher. What was your first reaction?
Christian Schaeffer: I'm a little more fond of "Outlaw Pete" than you are - I agree that it's a little overcooked, but something about the song feels bold (beyond its eight-minute run time). The chorus of "Can you hear me" recalls Magic's lead single "Radio Nowhere" and its plea, "Is there anybody alive out there?" But if "Radio Nowhere" was about disconnection from modern music and the way it's transmitted, "Outlaw Pete" isn't as easy to parse. It's equal parts myth, tall-tale and tragedy, like a twisted version of a Pioneer fable.
Maybe it's a continuation of his fascination with Pete Seeger, which was made apparent by Springsteen's 2006 tribute, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. I will say that the melody of "Outlaw Pete," with it's lock-step walk up the scale, reminds me of Blondie's "Call Me." Considering that Springsteen nicked Tommy Tutone's "867-5309/Jenny" for "Radio Nowhere," I'm fascinated by his use of '80s radio pop as fodder for his new work. Or maybe I'm just imagining things.
SK: No, I can see where you're coming from, and it's funny that you cite "867-5309" as the main bite in "Radio Nowhere," because I've always heard it as a direct aping of the Clash's "Clampdown" (which only preceded the '80s by a year). I think you're dead on with the Pete Seeger theory, and I wouldn't be surprised if we continue to hear stylistic remnants from Springsteen's folk forefather scattered about in future albums. All in all, "Outlaw Pete" isn't a bad song, and although the cinematic string arrangements go a long way to sell the overall composition, I'm left wondering whether this is the sonic equivalent of a star-studded, big-budget film with a shaky script.
CS: If nothing else, it's a step outside the type of songwriting he's been practicing the past few years.
SK: Magic was a testament to Bruce's continuing prowess as a pop songwriter, with "Livin' In The Future," "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" and "I'll Work For Your Love" all standouts. Springsteen has since explained that the recording of Working On A Dream was a result of his continued enjoyment in working with producer Brendan O'Brien (who helmed both records, as well as 2002's The Rising), and a renewed excitement in crafting pop music and channeling it through the legendary E Street Band. With that said, I can't help but hear Dream as a bundle of Magic b-sides. Where did the magic go?
CS: I'm likewise wary of the speed with which this album was released - I love that Bruce has a surplus of songs and the enthusiasm to put them to tape, but some of these could have gestated a little longer (and Springsteen's b-sides and castaways are hit and miss, in my opinion). I'll admit that the songs from Magic didn't catch me until I saw them performed live at his show this past August at the Scottrade Center. In that context, a few of them were as memorable as his marquee songs.
But maybe your issue isn't just the songs but the sonic similarities to much of Magic. "This Life," with Bruce's stately, vibrato-heavy vocals, sounds like a retread of the wonderful "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" (Magic's curveball, if it has one). But this has always been the problem with the E Street sound -- if you pepper in too much of the hallmarks (sax solos, glistening piano crescendos), it sounds like a retread. If you use too few, people ask, as you do, where the magic went.
SK: Dream isn't devoid of success, and I wouldn't even call it a failure; it seems more like a disappointment. If Magic had been a debut, this has the air of a sophomore slump. The record's highlights, however, continue to prove Springsteen's impeccable guile as a musical voice. "Life Itself" is a smoky, haunting meditation on the winds of change that clicks along like an over-wound clock, and the album's title track marks yet another example of the Boss's uncanny ability to channel the voice of the working class. This time, it's set afloat on an airy chorus that laments "I'm working on a dream, but sometimes it feels so far away."
Blue-collar America can certainly share the sentiment of despair, but as our country enters into the era of Hope, Change, and Obama, which title track seems like the timelier anthem -- "Dream" or "The Rising"?
CS: I think that working-man aesthetic comes at the nadir of the record, "Queen of the Supermarket." It's everything that critics find loathsome and sanctimonious about Springsteen - a vaulted singer trying to inhabit the working-class, blue-collar miseries that pass before him. Remember that Bruce was never a ditch-digger or steel worker - his middle-class cred was passed down from his parents, but the guy's been playing guitar for a living since his early twenties. Maybe his earlier songs about the working man (from the solemn "Factory" to the ebullient "Out in the Streets") worked due to his youth, but "Queen" gets pretty close to parody.
SK: You know, I had the same thought. Aside from the blush of embarrassment I get when I hear him sing the word "supermarket" (although I suppose it's slightly better than "grocery store"), this song suffers from the overall cheesiness inherent in a song with a youthful lyrical voice written by a songwriter who can only be described as "young at heart." Now, Bruce is obviously more than capable of reminiscing in his narratives, but this feels more like one of his signature character inhabitations, and it just doesn't work for me. Maybe I just need a shiny music video staring two fresh-faced actors to paint a picture for me and it will all come together.
CS: Do you think Courteney Cox is still available to reprise her role from the "Dancing in the Dark" video?