Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A New Hope

Bruce Springsteen - Working On A Dream (Columbia, 2009)

I’m increasingly wary of hyperbole at the moment (Gary Mulholland’s observation in this month’s Observer Music Monthly that Lily Allen is one of the ‘greatest lyricists and singers of her time’ struck me as particularly absurd), so let’s get a few things straight at the outset. Whilst I have no qualms about being a massive Springsteen fan, I’m not one of these strangely deluded people that think his ‘return to pop production’ on ‘Magic’ marked one of his greatest achievements. That being said, I’m certainly not averse to this late prolific period, and a companion piece to ‘Magic’ couldn’t really be a bad thing.

‘Working on a Dream’ continues Springsteen’s extraordinary talent for judging the American mood. ‘The Rising’ brought him out of a quasi-retirement and it seemed like a well-judged tonic of moderation in an otherwise stark post 9/11 landscape. Springsteen has recently derided the Bush administration for its lack of knowledge and understanding of the past, so perhaps the wonderful Seeger Sessions project was his personal response to that – an attempt to forge new links with the American folk tradition. Now ‘Working On A Dream’ arrives riding the crest of the wave of ‘Yes we can’ positivism that now characterises America. From ‘My Lucky Day’ to ‘What Love Can Do’ via the title track, ‘Working On A Dream’ presents an essentially positive view of what human relationships can achieve. This acts as a typically personal metaphor for the current American political climate. It seems appropriate writing about it on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration.

The good news is that, on first few listens, it seems like a marginally better album than ‘Magic’. It plays to that album’s strengths – most specifically, its love for the lavish pop flourishes of Phil Spector and Roy Orbison. There are more songs in the sonic model of ‘Girls In Their Summer Clothes’ here and, mercifully, less in the ponderous mould of ‘Devil’s Arcade’ or the plodding manner of ‘You’ll Be Comin’ Down’. In fact, ‘This Life’ perhaps resembles ‘Girls…’ a little too closely.

The sweeping narrative of the epic opener ‘Outlaw Pete’, an original Springsteen song that transplants the spirit of the Seeger Sessions onto the E Street Band, makes for one of the very best songs from these sessions. It’s an elaborate, lengthy story with a huge arrangement to match, once again giving Soozie Tyrell’s violin a pivotal role in the new E Street sound. It harks back to an exciting, wild and dangerous past (and to his more theatrical, dramatic side that he’s neglected on recent albums) but it’s a bit of a smokescreen for many of the lush, bittersweet songs that follow.

It’s possible that some may see these mostly straightforward pop songs as lightweight by Springsteen’s often weighty standards. Sometimes, though, simplicity is exactly what is required and there’s a sense that Springsteen is enjoying getting back to the basics of songwriting. Perhaps it’s particularly audacious of him to write a light country shuffle with lyrics collecting a series of borderline clich├ęs and call it ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – but this seems to be typical of the unburdened mood in which Springsteen currently finds himself. The jaunty, insistent ‘My Lucky Day’ and ‘Surprise Surprise’ wouldn’t have been out of place on the now unfairly maligned ‘Lucky Town’, but this is no bad thing. Both are rousing, irresistibly infectious pop songs. The general mood of the album is summed up brilliantly by ‘Kingdom of Days’. This work seems like an acceptance that what humans can achieve may be limited, but we must grasp for our full potential.

For the most part, Brendan O’Brien’s sound is a little less muddy here. There’s a little more room for individual parts and it’s particularly good that the supreme foundations provided by Garry Tallent’s basslines are now more audible. Unfortunately, O’Brien still can’t resist unnecessary flourishes and trickery. Springsteen’s voice, which has always alternated between impassioned howl and brow-beaten melancholy, has never been an instrument in need of reverb or double tracking. For this listener at least, these effects only serve to diminish his message.

The album ends with a sparse piece of great beauty – ‘The Last Carnival’, which is comfortably the most poetic and enthralling song here. It’s soft, blissful coda of gospel-infused vocals is an appropriate note on which to end – a sound that captures a strong sense of human creativity and invention. Perhaps it’s inappropriate that it is followed on limited edition versions by Springsteen’s title song from Darren Aronofsky’s film ‘The Wrestler’, however marvellous and insightful that song may be. Thinking again, though, perhaps even this character study shares the album’s abiding faith. Springsteen here seems to be adding his own weight to the great Studs Terkel’s observation that ‘a realist is someone who hopes’. Let’s hope that Obama too delivers on this essential promise and positive view of human nature. It has long been needed.