Calling Working on a Dream a polarizing album in the Bruce Springsteen catalog is inaccurate because that would assume that there are people out there who are really jazzed about it. It is forgotten and somewhat unforgiven among many of the Springsteen faithful, who don’t seem to mind when their hero is in Righteous Rocker or Grizzled Folkie mode but had no use for him daring to throw some new musical ideas at the wall on this 2009 release.
Which is too bad. I’ve studied Springsteen’s musical career closely, having written a book about it, and I feel like Working on a Dream represents Bruce at his most effortlessly entertaining and accessible, looking back to the ‘60s influences that shaped him and offering both loving homages to them and occasionally sly twists on them. Not only that, his songwriting is sharp throughout, including some of his most tongue-in-cheek humorous, charmingly vulnerable, and unabashedly romantic material.
I’ve thought often about where Working on a Dream went so awry with his adoring public. First of all, Springsteen chose the wrong song to introduce the song to the world. The title track is amiable enough and it works within the context of the album. But it lacks the kind of pep and depth that “Radio Nowhere” or “We Take Care of Our Own” contained, to name two opening salvos from a couple of his other 21st century albums. (I’ve always wondered what might have happened had Springsteen, ever the thematic stickler had held back “Girls on Their Summer Clothes”, which was released on Magic two years earlier, for Working on a Dream. It’s a much more eloquent treatise on the same wistful theme, and it’s catchy as heck.)
Then there were the promotional efforts that Springsteen undertook for the album. He was all over the place, culminating in a Super Bowl appearance which made “Working on a Dream” sound absolutely lightweight next to some of the evergreens in his catalog that he played during the halftime show. Maybe there was some fatigue there, especially considering how quickly the album followed on the heels of Magic.
Finally, there are a couple songs that some Springsteen fanatics simply can’t seem to abide. “Outlaw Pete,” the ambitious opening track, was derisively labeled “Out To Pee” by fans during the tour to support the album. And “Queen of the Supermarket,” an intriguing character sketch of a lonely wanderer who finds salvation in a checkout girl, left many bewildered.
I can’t get on board with the last criticisms. I included “Outlaw Pete” in my book as one of Springsteen’s top 100 songs; it’s an engaging Western tall tale set to suitably epic music. And I enjoy “Queen of the Supermarket” as the Boss’ winking tribute to some of legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb’s more ornate narratives.
The album as a whole glides along light on its feet, full of sweetness and emotion. “This Life” revels in Pet Sounds sonics and harmonies and soars on one of Springsteen’s most open-hearted melodies. “Surprise, Surprise” sounds like it could have been booming from AM transistor radios circa 1967. Even with the songs that strike a more serious musical tone, like “What Love Can Do” and “Life Itself,” redemptive love is waiting in each chorus.
Working on a Dream peaks as it comes closer to its conclusion. “Kingdom of Days” might be Springsteen’s most affecting song about successful relationships, one written with clear-eyed maturity but still hopeful in its heart. “We’ll laugh beneath the covers, count the wrinkles and the grays,” he sings, embracing the passing time instead of dreading it.
“The Last Carnival” was Springsteen’s loving elegy for dearly departed keyboardist Danny Federici. The song cleverly calls back to “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” a 1973 track which featured Federici’s accordion. Only now, Billy has to leave the circus behind, while the narrator and the rest of the gang move on the next town, sadder and wearier yet still pursuing that youthful dream.
Finally, there is the “The Wrestler,” the stunner that Springsteen wrote for the Mickey Rourke-starring film of the same name. Here, Springsteen embodies a fate far worse than the death of “The Last Carnival,” as his wounded warrior methodically alienates everyone in his life, reaching a point where intense physical and emotional pain is the only thing to which he can possibly relate.
Which brings us to what I’ve finally settled on as the ultimate reason that fans had no use for Working on a Dream. Throughout his career, Springsteen’s narrators could always stand in for his audience, going through many of the same signposts as the years passed. They started out in the streets, causing trouble and living to the fullest (the first three albums), but then they had to settle get down and get jobs (Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River.) They started to become aware of the social issues around them (Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad), and they dealt with romance, making mistakes (Tunnel of Love) but ultimately settling down and figuring it out to a degree (Human Touch and Lucky Town). They tried to make sense of unimaginable tragedy (The Rising) and they proved, time after time, their resilience (Born in the USA, Magic, Wrecking Ball, etc.)
On Working on a Dream, they faced, if not old age, then, at the very least, advanced middle age, with all of the bittersweet profundity that accompanies that time of life. Maybe it was something that those listening weren’t too anxious to vicariously confront. Springsteen confronted it fearlessly, on musical terms anyway, with this album, and, as usual, triumphed. Too bad more people don’t realize it.
Photo Credit: Bruce Springsteen, photographed at the Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey, will be touring with his new album ‘Working on a Dream.’ (Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)