Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A New Dream

Since reuniting with his long-time compatriots in the E Street Band at the turn of the millennium, Springsteen and the group have produced three studio albums that can’t help but feel like a single great trilogy of work. But while the 2002 masterpiece The Rising sprung out of courage, grief and pain in the aftermath of 9/11 and 2007’s Magic pushed a strong electric guitar blast of aggression in the heart of the second Bush administration, their latest effort is a wonderful reflection of the nation’s bountiful optimism of the newly born-Obama Era.

Here it seems the efforts to capture the group’s full sound are finally achieved. And that really is the key to why this record works. The lyrics are full of the character flaws and failures and harsh realities that Springsteen has always had, as he wails in “Life Itself,” “You squandered all your riches your beauty and your wealth/Like you had no further use for, for life itself” and haunts us with “We reach for starlight all night long/But gravity’s too strong” in “This Life.” But in this instance it seems the upbeat music of album keeps us going through love lost and even unfulfilled, a half-blind man and even an outlaw cowboy, and a positive gleam repeatedly springs up as he says, “A beauty in the neighborhood/This lonely planet never looked so good.”

The most challenging part of the effort is the opening track, “Outlaw Pete” where Springsteen’s pseudo-corny cowboy lyrics are saved by an incredibly layered melodic effort. For eight solid minutes, themes pile on top of one another evoking everything from a repeated Once Upon a Time in the West inspired-harmonica and church bell riff to Soozie Tyrell’s lifting violin piled on top of multiple organs, keyboards and guitars bringing the song higher and higher to where this album will live. Listening to just the music, this tracks takes us from the darker place we’ve been living to where we want to be… somewhere greater.

While often full of darker lyrics in the truest Springsteen fashion, the repeatedly wonderful melodies kick into high gear with the up-tempo “My Lucky Day”, become literally toe-tapping in “Tomorrow Never Knows” and finally end up in a place bordering on pop in “Surprise, Surprise,” a song that five times through still puts a smile on my face. The title track evokes so much of what was felt and said in “Counting on a Miracle” from The Rising, it’s as if the previous effort is just a bit older and world-worn and ties the two albums together even further.

From a production standpoint, Working on a Dream is the fully-realized artistry of a man who has worked on little else in the previous 35 years. The grandest achievement by the band and producer Brendan O’Brien is that despite being the most technically mature work in Springsteen’s entire discography, virtually every track evokes the sense of the band’s free-flowing concert efforts. It’s hard to imagine many of these songs not working live, perhaps the lone problem that weighed down many tracks from The Rising.

But in a sad way, this truly seems to be not only the end of a great trilogy of albums, but a reminder of taking a sense of joy while the opportunity still presents itself. The dedication to Danny Federici, a founding member of the E Street Band who passed last April after a long battle with melanoma, is not just there in heartfelt written words at the close of the album’s booklet, but the final track, “The Last Carnival.” A quiet, almost lullaby opening leading to acoustic guitars lends a real sense of conclusion not only to this album, but a period in Springsteen’s career. The familiar lyrics of a friend lost, no longer there when we reach for him, are accompanied by some of the simplest backup; light guitars with none of the drums or complex strings and accordions that are present elsewhere on the record. But in the end even these words and simple melodies fade away and in one final effort as a chorus of voices tries to lift us back up to somewhere fuller, happier and where the band can feel the presence of their friend.

Final Score:

An additional note: In a thematic sense, that is the end of the album, but there is the final bonus track “The Wrestler,” the Golden Globe-winning title track from Darren Aronofsky’s latest film. I’ll address this song in a bit more detail in an upcoming Oscar podcast with my That’s a Wrap compatriots. It doesn’t really blend well with the rest of the work here and while I appreciate not having to purchase a separate single or the film’s soundtrack, it’s important to see “The Last Carnival” as the end of this album and judge the single separately. I remain pleasantly happy I first heard this song in it's best place, over the closing credits of the film.

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