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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Love, death, supermarkets: Springsteen's latest album

By Jon Bernstein

What happens when Bruce Springsteen gets old? The Boss himself has been addressing that very question for the past three decades, ever since he released “Born To Run” in 1975. At age 32, in his song “Two Hearts,” Springsteen wrote “Someday these childish dreams must end, to become a man and grow up to dream again.”

Enter “Working on a Dream,” the latest record from Bruce Springsteen, and quite possibly his most mature to date. Springsteen’s latest album features stripped-down, simplistic songwriting mixed with a full-orchestrated pop sound. Springsteen, along with producer Brendan O’Brien, began to tap into this new style during the recording sessions of his last record, “Magic.” Springsteen’s topical focus has matured consistently since the early eighties, and this past decade has witnessed the one-time street poet singing primarily about the nation’s social/political landscape (“The Rising” and “Magic”) while touching on inter-personal and familial themes along the way (“Devils and Dust”). But never before has Springsteen, on the verge of turning 60, dealt with death and his own aging directly and candidly. Composed around layered pop-production and vibrant, orchestrated melodies, “Working on a Dream” is, at its heart, an album about seeking out love and compassion as we grow older and acknowledge our own mortality.

For those looking for the lyrical drama of “Jungleland,” or even a repeat of the wordy “Magic,” there will be some disappointments. The songwriting is simple and sparse, and the new record contains some of the most straightforwardly cheerful songs Springsteen has ever recorded. More importantly, the album’s intense personal focus and its relentlessly endearing pop melodies amount to something that undoubtedly sounds and feels unlike anything Springsteen has ever released.

While “Working on a Dream” is arguably his most unique-sounding record, it is still laden with familiar notions from the Boss. Whether it’s the pleasantly simple line of reassurance, (“in a way it’ll be alright,”) in “This Life,” or the classic Springsteenian plea for human connection (“can you hear me?”) that’s repeated in the opening track, “Outlaw Pete,” there are plenty of moments in the album that are instantly recognizable Springsteen one-liners. But what sets “Working On A Dream” apart from Springsteen’s other work is both its persistent themes of time and matured love as well as its highly orchestrated and pop-influenced sound.

“Working on a Dream,” is a celebration in the fullest sense. “We laughed beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays,” sings Springsteen in “Kingdom of Days,” a reflection on love and compassion in the face of old age. Rather than lamenting the passage of time with dark songs of remorse and loss, Springsteen encourages us to “sing away,” because “this is our kingdom of days.” Whether it’s the blatant optimism of the title track, the reassuring confidence in “What Love Can Do,” or the uncompromising playfulness of “Surprise Surprise” (Springsteen’s attempt at writing his very own “happy birthday” song), “Working on a Dream” goes out of its way to reassure us that, despite troubled times and old age, there’s so much more life to live. In “My Lucky Day,” the most classically E Street Band-sounding track on the album, Springsteen announces with pride, “I’ve lost all the other bets I’ve made, honey you’re my lucky day.” Find solace in your loved ones and everything will be all right, muses Springsteen, no matter how desolate or unfortunate things may seem. The man himself puts it best in “This Life,” when he croons “this lonely planet never looked so good.”

“Working on a Dream,” while it may be the most contented album Springsteen has ever released, is at the same time full of the type of lonely desperation that characterizes so many of his earlier records. “Queen of the Supermarket,” one of the more bizarre numbers in the Bruce catalog, is the story of a middle-aged man seeking out his desires and fantasies at the local grocery store. Springsteen endows the supermarket, “a wonderful place where all you at your fingertips” with the type of despairing romanticism that used to be reserved for his ’69 Chevy. This sort of aged loneliness, first hinted at in last year’s “Girls In Their Summer Clothes,” bleeds through the clear-cut cheeriness in “Working On A Dream” again and again. When Springsteen finally receives a smile, his “glimpse down on magic street,” from the queen of the supermarket, he gets so riled up he ends up dropping the f-bomb-one of the album’s most silly yet poignant moments.

Pervading feelings of isolation and mortality find their way into nearly every track on “Working On A Dream.” In “This Life,” Springsteen manages to sneak the verse, “at night at my telescope alone, this emptiness I’ve roamed, searching for a home.” The narrator in “Good Eye” is straight out of “Nebraska,” looking back on his misplaced life and lamenting that he “squandered all his riches, each and every one.” Springsteen then tackles death, more specifically the recent passing of close band-member Dan Federici, head on in the album’s official closer, “The Last Carnival.” The song ends with the only way Springsteen can attempt to reconcile the death of his companion of forty years: a question. “Sun down, sun down, empty are the fairgrounds, where are you now, handsome Billy?”

What finally establishes “Working On A Dream” as such as a unique fixture in the Springsteen canon is it’s highly orchestrated, richly defined production. Alongside Brendan O’Brien, Springsteen has crafted a record that takes so many of his early musical influences and makes them sound fresh and exciting once again. Endless vocal harmonies, layered strings, and jangling guitars provide a satisfyingly polished sound that makes “Working On A Dream” feel anything but rushed (this is Springsteen’s second studio album in just fifteen months). Bursting through all of the joy and sadness, the looming death and shameless celebration of life that is “Working On A Dream,” ultimately is the music. The wealth of sounds and influences that amount to somewhat of a lesson in rock history become songs in and of themselves-evoking the excitement, desperation, confidence, and sense of urgency that defines “Working On A Dream” when the lyrics occasionally fall short. This lonely planet never sounded so good.

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