I didn't latch on to Springsteen when I was a kid despite the popularity of Born in the USA when I was six (I sure did love Dancing in the Dark, though). I recall liking Human Touch (the song) when it was released, but it wasn't until I got out of high school that I realized there was more to The Boss due to Secret Garden being such a big part of the Jerry Maguire advertising campaign. That song refused to leave my head and so I purchased Greatest Hits, knowing only Hungry Heart, Born In The USA, Glory Days, Dancing In The Dark, Human Touch, Secret Garden, and Streets of Philadelphia. That made it easy to validate the purchase, but when I actually listened to the whole thing I realized there was much more, though it took me a couple of more years until I explored Springsteen more fully.
When I finally got Born To Run and popped it in to a CD player I was mesmerized. I love music. I love what a song or a good album can do, but I'd never been TAKEN somewhere before. I'd never just been sucked into a different world by an album. By a book, yes. By a film, yes. And here was Bruce Springsteen just taking me away. The experience was exhilarating. Upon exploration I did find another Boss album capable of doing that - The Wild, The Innocent, and The E-Street Shuffle. And that's not meant as an indictment on his other work, but those two albums feel very cohesive and they really flow and take you from scene to scene. I may like Darkness On The Edge Of Town better than either (or not, have trouble ranking them), but it is not cinematic like those two.
And that brings me to Working On A Dream. I avoided it for over a year for some reason. I think that my enthusiasm for Springsteen had quieted down a bit. I really liked Magic and The Rising, but had gotten into other things and for me time can often lessen my view of an artist, not enhance it. Overall I think the 2000s were one of Bruce's best decades. Great output throughout.
But The Rising, Devils & Dust, The Seeger Sessions, and Magic didn't take me somewhere. So, after putting it off for a long while I finally put Working On A Dream in ye olde Zune and hit play. It was then that it happened.
The Boss took me somewhere again, though not in the way of those masterpieces from the 70s. This was more mature and definitely not as cohesive, yet it somehow all fit together seamlessly.
From the folktale of Outlaw Pete that recalls the absurdities of that genre and of The Boss' old street gang songs to the overlaid guitars, vocals, keyboards, and more of My Lucky Day and beyond, this record is wonderful and mature. I doubt Bruce could make Born to Run today - he's no longer naive. People always point to those type of things with older artists, but Young Bruce could never have made something with the emotional depth and knowledge of Working On A Dream.
Here he deals with love, growing old, with loss and does it beautifully. Even a song like Queen of the Supermarket, an easy one to write off like Outlaw Pete, has a lot more depth when you really listen to it. Besides, I think a lot of people have had those encounters with waitresses, checkout girls, etc where the possibility of something greater sneaks into your head. Here the singer idealizes her just as the singer of Cynthia from the BUSA sessions did - the women serves as the exemplary ideal even if reality can't match it, but while he doesn't approach her and confess his feelings she can still serve as a pillar of all that is right in the world. In that the character is naive, but there is a beauty in the naivete.
This album is laced with beauty that has become too uncommon in modern music. This Life is beautifully on so many levels, from the craftsmanship of the music to the lyrics that really captures the beauty of life and love. Kingdom of Days is another eloquent pop song that focuses on man and wife growing old together with Surprise Surprise closing out this cycle wonderfully.
The record closes (I'm ignoring The Wrestler as part of the record - great song that I regard as a separate item) with a goodbye and a sequel to Wild Billy's Circus Story from The Wild, The Innocent, and The E-Street Shuffle. The Last Carnival is a beautiful farewell to Danny Federici, long time E-Street organist who died of cancer in 2008. As a fan, this song chokes me up as Danny is put in the role of Billy who has died and will no longer join the carnival as it goes from town to town. From the lead in carnival music (played by Federici's son) to the end with a chorus of angelic voices, this song is perfect, bittersweet, and heartfelt.
I wish I would have listened to this record sooner. It's difficult to rank Springsteen's work, but he is clearly one of the greatest rock'n'roll artists ever. This album probably flows the best of any of his albums since Born In The USA (Tunnel of Love, Human Touch, Lucky Town, Tom Joad, Rising, etc all had a hiccup here or there). It is definitely his most pop oriented sound since Born In The USA, though it's not like that or The River entirely, with more Brian Wilson inspired stuff here. But the pop sound works so well for Springsteen. The problem with so much pop is that it is mindless lyrically and musically, but this album is neither. The lyrics are mostly thoughtful with some quirks and the songcraft is top notch. It's a shame that this is not the norm. The kids all want to take the easy way out while making a quick buck, but not The Boss. Buy it and then buy more Bruce if you haven't already. I guarantee your opinion of a lot of the newest popular stuff will drop dramatically.