Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Let Me Show You What Love Can Do": A Review of Springsteen's Working on a Dream

Despite its title, Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream (released January 27, 2009) does not mark the Boss’s return to working class music. Rather, it stands as another reminder that Springsteen is far removed from that working class minstrel we hear in Darkness at the Edge of Town, The River, and Born in the U.S.A.

Not that that’s a bad thing.

Springsteen is now in his early sixties, which means he’s only a few years away from getting a senior citizen’s discount at the local picture show. In the twenty-five years since Born in the U.S.A., his last overtly working class album, he has been writing music that reflects the changes of perspective that have come with aging and maturity. His commercial successes and failures of the past twenty years—and especially his marriage and family life—have taken his mind and music away from their working class roots. Because of this, some so-called fans have accused him of losing touch with his audience or selling out to the Man. They forget, of course, that there’s nothing worse than watching an aging rocker imitate his younger self on a PBS special. No one wants to see the Boss pretend to be 35.

In many ways, nothing on Working on a Dream is new for long-time fans of Springsteen. It is stylistically similar to Springsteen’s most recent release, 2007’s Magic, but leans thematically towards 2002’s The Rising. In many ways, it is also something of a capstone album for the whole of Springsteen’s work produced during the Bush administration. For instance, the album’s fifth track, “What Love Can Do,” seeks practical reconciliation between the optimism of The Rising and the pessimism of Devils and Dust (released in 2005) and Magic:

Darlin’, I can't stop the rain
Or turn your black sky blue
But let me show you what love can do
Let me show you what love can do

The notion that love and relationships are the only anchors in troubled times is repeated several times throughout the album. In “Lucky Day,” for example, the singer takes comfort in the knowledge that “In the dark of this exile / I felt the grace of your smile.” Likewise, in “This Life,” the singer reflects on “This emptiness I've roamed / Searching for a home,” ultimately concluding that “With you I have been blessed, what more can you expect.”

Working on a Dream also explores the darker side of love. In “Queen of the Supermarket,” for example, a lonely shopper sings about his love for a beautiful cashier and the “cool promise of ecstasy” awaiting him at the grocery store where she works. The shopper’s love is unrequited, though, and his inhibitions keep the “cool promise” from being fulfilled. For him, love becomes something of an empty dream; while he finds happiness in the sight of her beauty, the happiness is only temporary. At the end of each day, he is still alone:

I'm in love with the queen of the supermarket
There's nothing I can say
Each night I take my groceries and I drift away, and I drift away

In “Life Itself,” which is possibly the best song on the album, Springsteen continues to explore the darker side of love. In this song, the singer is caught in a demanding relationship with a self-destructive lover:

I knew you were in trouble anyone could tell
You carried your little black book from which all your secrets fell
You squandered all your riches your beauty and your wealth
Like you had no further use for, for life itself

Springsteen, of course, is ambiguous about gender in “Life Itself,” suggesting that the lot of the singer is more universal than unique to men only or women. So, too, seem to be the questions asked of the listener:

Why do the things that we treasure most, slip away in time
Till to the music we grow deaf, to God's beauty blind
Why do the things that connect us slowly pull us apart?
Till we fall away in our own darkness, a stranger to our own hearts

These questions, in many ways, cut at the heart of the optimism in Working on a Dream, for they remind listeners that “the things that connect us”—i.e. love and relationships—often carry a high price, especially in demanding relationships like that in “Life Itself.” The singer’s frequent repetition of the phrase “I can’t make it without you,” however, illustrates the depth of his or her seemingly irrational reliance on a connection that will inevitably prove destructive. The singer’s voice, after all, is sincere; he or she seems willing to face inevitable destruction for the chance to “make it”—so much so, in fact, that the singer ends the song with a toast of commitment to the relationship:

So here's one for the road, here's one to your health and to
Life itself, rushing over me
Life itself, the wind in the black elms,
Life itself in your heart and in your eyes, I can't make it without you

“Life Itself” stands alone in its bleakness. Most of Working on a Dream remains upbeat, often in spite of its awareness of hard times. The title track, “Working on a Dream,” is catchy and fun to sing along to. “Good Eye” is another good track, although it is largely incoherent. “What Love Can Do” is one of the best songs on the album, as is the bonus track “The Wrestler.” The peppiest song on the album is a mediocre track entitled “Surprise, Surprise,” which easily wins the “Most Obnoxious Chorus” award:

Well, surprise, surprise, surprise
Yea, surprise, surprise, surprise
Well, surprise, surprise
C'mon open your eyes and let your love shine down

One low point on the album, however, is the song "This Life," which has good lyrics but a forgettable melody. The same can almost be said about the song "Kingdom of Days," which is a love song about growing old. "Kingdom of Days" is growing on me, though.

Ultimately, Working on a Dream is Springsteen meditation on the kind of resignation that seems to come with age and maturity. Likely, the album signals the beginning of the end of the Boss. In the years to come, his albums will become much less political and increasingly more aware of his limitations. As a fan, I understand that this is inevitable.

Sing away, sing away, sing away, sing away


  1. So - all in all - you like this latest work. I'm glad to see that you allow the artist to grow and change and not remain in the glory years of the past. I was a little shocked when you said how old he is - I had no clue.

  2. What did you think of the boss’ crotch shot in the Superbowl? There’s nothing like seeing a 50 year old man slide awkwardly across the stage and ram balls first into the camera. I want a review on that Scott. The man couldn’t step down after that performance; he had to be helped down. But who wouldn’t want to relive the Glory Days one last time. I just think he will be sorry when tomorrow’s Rising comes along he’ll really feel it than.

  3. Well, Felshaw, in respect to the Boss having to be helped off the stage...he is getting old and it was bound to happen.

    In respect to the rest of your comment...well, I'm not really sure how to respond to it. But I guess I was focusing more on his knees than his crotch. I mean, not every sixty-something can still slide across a stage on his knees.

  4. What can I say Scott I have always focused on the upside of things...:-)