Wednesday, January 28, 2009

DREAM ON Bruce Springsteen

The Boss delivers a stirring exploration of love in the face of time and space itself.

January 23, 2009

Working on a Dream is the most confounding album Bruce Springsteen's ever released-a lush, orchestrated, collection of pop and rock songs whose profound statements swirl beneath the music rather than float on its surface. Musically, it's a logical extension of the road he's been traveling since he started working with producer Brendan O'Brien on 2002's The Rising and continued on with 2007's Magic. But where The Rising was explicitly tied to 9/11 and Magic explored the state of the union even in its non-overtly political songs (am I the only one who kept hearing "You'll Be Coming Down" as Bush left Washington?), Working on a Dream's concerns are more eternal-it's not so much a meditation on "love in the time of Bush," as Springsteen himself called "What Love Can Do," as it is an exploration of love in the face of time and space itself, a "big string of shining stars, rusting in red out of arms," as he sings on "This Life."

And while it carries echoes of all of his past work-from the glockenspiel in the title cut harkening back to "Born to Run" to the bonus track "The Wrestler," which, save for its synth intro, would have sounded at home on The Ghost of Tom Joad-it's also unlike anything he's ever done. Minus the opener, the eight-minute "Outlaw Pete," it's the kind of record Steve Van Zandt has said he always wanted his boss to make, full of concise pop melodies, rich harmonies, and hooks straight out of the mid-1960s. Sonically, its debts are most deeply owed to the Beach Boys, Turtles, Byrds, and, on the reckless and raucous "My Lucky Day," the Rolling Stones.

That this album is more about music than lyrics is made clear from the album's opening notes, the locomotive chugging of cellos that kick off epic "Outlaw Pete." The song begins as a comic tall tale-by the time he was six months old, Pete had spent three months in jail for robbing banks in his "diapers and little bare baby feet"-and ends as a reckoning of our inability to escape the sins of the past. What it is mostly, though, is an Ennio Morricone film score writ small, Roy Bittan's barrelhouse piano and Springsteen's reverb-heavy guitar working in concert with strings to create a sonic spaghetti western. The real payoff comes in the song's denouement, bells ringing and Springsteen's harmonica playing virtually the same notes as Charles Bronson did in Once Upon a Time in the West before the full band and strings come crashing back in.

It's pretentious and overblown, to be sure, but then again, so was "Jungleland," and "Outlaw Pete" works nearly as well. (That blowhards like Bob Lefsetz are trying to drum up controversy by claiming the song's melody is a ripoff of Kiss's "I Was Made for Loving You" misses the point of the song, which isn't about melody but orchestration, and of Kiss, which was never about music anyway.) Still, it's a weighty song with which to open an album, and "My Lucky Day" blows away pretention with the most straightforward rock on the album and one of the most unabashedly optimistic songs Springsteen's ever written. The dirty guitars, Soozie Tyrell's sweet fiddle line, and Steve Van Zandt's ragged harmony vocal are the antithesis of "Outlaw Pete"'s studied perfection.

As orchestrated and ornamented as most of Working on a Dream is, it's driven by a band playing live. Springsteen recorded the core tracks live with Bittan, bassist Garry Tallent and drummer Max Weinberg before adding overdubs to flesh out the productions, and it shows. That's one of the things that makes the album sound so deceptively simple on first listen; rarely have such layered arrangements sounded so effortless. From "My Lucky Day" forward, it's a wild, not-so-innocent ride through examinations of eternal love (the meditative "Kingdom of Days" and "This Life"), transient life ("The Wrestler"; blues shouter "Good Eye"; and a heartbreaking acoustic tribute to late E Street organist Danny Federici, "The Last Carnival," which ends in a soaring, wordless chorale), and, lest we get too lofty, the supermarket.

"Queen of the Supermarket" is one of the sweetest, strangest songs Springsteen's ever recorded, a stroll through a world where "aisles and aisle of dreams await you" and "the cool promise of ecstasy fills the air." Never has grocery shopping sounded so alluring, with a lilting melody and strings carrying us to the counter where the object of the narrator's fantasy awaits. But something else lies beneath the bright lights and materialist fantasy; the singer catches a smile from the cashier at song's end that "blows this whole fuckin' place apart," and the profanity shocks us out of our reverie, reminding us that all of it-the market, the fantasy, the checkout girl's job-is a dead-end. The guitars and harmonies dissolve into legato strings and the beeps of a UPC scanner that sounds more like an EKG monitor, another version of "wounded, but not even dead."

And while Springsteen reckons with death literally on "The Last Carnival"-the first time he sings "we'll be ridin' the train without you tonight" in concert, you can bet there won't be a dry eye in the house-and on "This Life," whose chorus refers not just to this life but "then the next," he only sounds fearsome when he faces up to the death of the spirit and of faith in "Life Itself," asking "Why do the things that we treasure most slip away and die/ ‘til to the music we grow deaf and to God's beauty blind?" He doesn't have the answer, and only finds the antidote, as always, not in the abstract but the human, clinging desperately to his love as he sings "I can't make it without you." Again, though, it's the music that makes a more powerful statement than the lyrics. A sinister, Byrds-y 12-string sizzles throughout and is joined on the bridge by a backwards guitar solo reminiscent of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows."

He also steals the title of that song for another of the album's tracks, one that also shares the Beatles' tune's imploration to live in the present, as death is always around the corner. A bouncy country shuffle, "Tomorrow Never Knows" and the birthday tune "Surprise, Surprise" offer the breeziest moments on what initially appears to be a pretty breezy collection.

But like Born in the U.S.A. almost 25 years ago, Working on a Dream is an immediately accessible collection of pop songs whose depth is belied by their simple charms.

Springsteen counts his blessings

Asbury Park Press Music Writer
January 25, 2009

POP MUSIC IS A YOUNG person's game, no doubt about that.

But at 59, Bruce Springsteen can still reach back and conjure the helpless thrill of a crush.

"I'm in love with the queen of the supermarket, There's nothing I can say," he sings, and that says it all.

Tongue-tied and overwhelmed, the narrator on "Queen of the Supermarket" wheels his cart through aisles of abundance, pining away.

It's an adorable song, with flashes of humor ("Though a company cap covers her hair, Nothing can hide the beauty waiting there") and a winsome melody.

"Queen of the Supermarket" brings to mind John Updike's 1961 short story, "A&P," in which the teenage narrator tries to stand up for a young customer he refers to as "Queenie." In contrast to Updike's story, however, Springsteen's tale ends with a hint of luck, as the seemingly unattainable queen smiles at her suitor.

As a grace note, the track ends with the beeping sound of the check-out line, and a chorus of sighs.

Springsteen's new album, "Working on a Dream" is laden with semi-precious gems like that.

While not as exuberant as "Magic," from 2007, "Working on a Dream" is cut from the same cloth. Brendan O'Brien produced both discs, and his shimmering style puts a bright glaze on every track. Likewise, the art work in the CD booklet is saturated with color. Even Danny Clinch's portrait of Springsteen on the cover has been infused with bright, warm spots.

O'Brien's production seems to free Springsteen from the constraints of roots rock. Several tracks brush against psychedelia, notably the swirly "Surprise, Surprise," and the luscious ode to love, "This Life." There's also some sprightly folk rock on "Tomorrow Never Knows," with a whispering drum beat by Max Weinberg.

Springsteen experimented a lot on this album, and, OK, not everything works.

Clocking in at eight minutes, the opening track is ample enough to contain the unabridged biography of one "Outlaw Pete." It's a tall tale, but not a particularly engaging one, and too long by half.

But hang on, because Springsteen jumps into "My Lucky Day" for track two, and we're on steadier ground, with a robust solo from saxophonist Clarence Clemons and the high, expressive backing vocals of guitarist Steven Van Zandt. Rollicking and upbeat, "My Lucky Day" segues nicely into the wistful, mellow title track.

Springsteen's tribute to bandmate Danny Federici, who died last year, is a privilege to hear. "The Last Carnival" paints a succinct picture of two close friends, and of the deep ache of the survivor.

Throughout the album, there is gratitude. The song titles proclaim it: "Life Itself," "Kingdom of Days," "This Life," "My Lucky Day." Everything is savored — night and day, seasons and stars, the leaves, the moon, and the wind.

In these songs, Springsteen is thankful for love, most of all. His words are deeply romantic, delivered in a voice reverent and awestruck.

"This life, this life and then the next, With you I have been blessed," he sings in "This Life."

"You were life itself, rushing over me, Life itself, the wind in black elms," he sings in "Life Itself."

And in "Kingdom of Days," he pens verse after verse of mature, poetic appreciation of love:

"And I count my blessings that you're mine for always, We laugh beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays, Sing away . . . This is our kingdom of days."

Flirtation, as in "Queen of the Supermarket," brings a frisson of joy. And if we're lucky, this album reminds us, we find the real deal, and cultivate a life of love and friendship, for which we should be forever grateful.

Springsteen's "Dream': Cherish every minute

jAMUARY 27, 2009

"Had we but world enough and time. . ." — "To His Coy Mistress," Andrew Marvell

"He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; so they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end." — Ecclesiastes 3:11

Bruce Springsteen's new album, "Working on a Dream," begins in the mythic past of the Old West with the tale of "Outlaw Pete," and it ends, more or less, somewhere north of forever with a farewell prayer for late E Street band member Danny Federici.

Springsteen may or may not have a lot of time on his hands these days, but this new album reveals a man with time on his mind.

Song after song offer reflections on what moments may bring, what the years carry away, and how we fill our days.

Even the titles of the tracks reveal the overwhelming concern: "Tomorrow Never Knows," and "My Lucky Day" and even the Old Testament-sounding, "Kingdom of Days." "Tomorrow Never Knows" he sings, but we do.

We know where all our tomorrows ultimately lead: to the grave and what, if anything lies beyond.

"The nights are long," the singer admits in the title track, and sometimes trouble seems like it's here to stay. But if there's yearning in his voice, there's also hope. In fact, Springsteen whistles a jaunty tune through the bridge.

Whistles, of all things; probably in the dark and likely past the cemetery.
Which is why the music itself kind of alternates between the stately and the urgent. We need the stately to slow life down so we may capture each blessed moment. And the urgency propels us forward, reminding us that however much time we have is probably never enough.

In "Life Itself," Max Weinberg's drum seems to be ticking out the very seconds. And the singer remarks that his lover feels like "life itself rushing over me." But the hardest rocking number, "Good Eye," with its swamp rocking, foot stomping, harmonica wailing, yelping singer, is the most fatalistic: "I had my good eye to the dark and my blind eye to the sun."

Which leaves him exactly where? Howling in the dark.

Better perhaps to seize the blessings on this brief journey, Springsteen seems to say: melody, soaring harmonies, moments of joy, love, and faith.

Though no one said it would be easy.

In "Lucky Day," he admits that happiness is a long shot at best: ". . . I see strong hearts give way/To the burdens of the day/To the weary hands of time/Where fortune is not kind. . ."

And love has its limits, as even "What Love can Do" shows.

But what other choice is there?

Maybe it comes down to laughter, as in "Kingdom of Days": "When I count my blessings and you're mine for always/We laughed beneath the covers/and count the wrinkles and the grays."

We treasure even the hard and dark of this world even as we hope for more and believe in more. Explicitly or implicitly, God makes his presence felt on this album.

"This life, this life and then the next," Springsteen sings on "This Life," without a trace of doubt or irony, "With you I have been blessed."

Springsteen and the E Street Band have always been good at providing travelin' music, music for the open road.

Well, for many of us, the journey has changed, the ultimate destination closer than many of us are comfortable with.

Even on this leg of the trip, "Working On A Dream," lets us put the top down and crank the music up.

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