Clearly, this is not the most timely of reviews. Over the past month-plus, I have had plenty of opportunity to listen to Working on a Dream, and that opportunity has led to a mixed feeling about the record. 2007's Magic was an altogether enjoyable record for me. When I go back to it, I never feel the urge to skip a track, at least not as the result of not liking a song.
The same cannot be said of my listening experiences with Working on a Dream.
To kick things off, the listener is assailed by "Outlaw Pete", a song which I really think could work on a different project but strikes me as more of a solo Springsteen song than an E Street song. Instrumentally, it works (as just about the entire album does), but it really feels out of place on this record and with this band. The song is not done any favors by its somewhat lame title.
After that, though, there are two rock-solid E Street songs, "My Lucky Day"--which is an unabashed rollick imbued with just enough recklessness to endear itself to the listener--and the campaign trail title track, "Working on a Dream". Its ever-presence in support of Obama probably warms me to it more than the song may have in another time and place, but no listener really goes into any song without any personal baggage. Appreciation of music is largely informed by our relationship to the music and what we associate songs with, for better or worse.
Speaking of worse, the album goes from a great two-three punch to "Queen of the Supermarket". I am not really sure how to put this kindly and, as such, have been rendered impotent for a month, at least insofar as being able to write about this album is concerned. The weird thing is the first three lines of the song along with the intro could trick you into thinking you might be in for a pretty good song, and musically it has its moments (its coda is particularly striking), but lyrically it is preposterous. You get what he is trying to do, but the song is just off, and it also has the shocking beginning of the final verse that is as follows: "As I lift my groceries into my cart / I turn back for a moment and catch a smile / That blows this whole fucking place apart." What the fuck?
Luckily, the album regains its balance with "What Love Can Do". Of course, it falters again with the next track, "This Life", which errs to far into the realm of schmaltz and simply never comes back.
Now if Working on a Dream ended there, the album would likely have been an abject failure with two of the first six songs being bad and another seeming out of place entirely (although it is not without its merits). Luckily, much of the best is saved for tracks seven and beyond.
While "Good Eye" is not the most complex song ever written, it really works as kind of a dirty electric blues song that makes me look back fondly at some of the strongest parts of Tunnel of Love. That song rolls into the simple country-western track "Tomorrow Never Knows", which bides the albums time until "Life Itself", Working on a Dream's first inarguably accomplished song both lyrically and instrumentally. It works on every level and has complexity that early tracks that work like "My Lucky Day" for all their strengths lack.
From their the album takes a two-song detour into the inoffensive but ultimately forgettable in "Kingdom of Days"--a nice enough song but is not done any favors by being placed after "Life Itself"--and the poppy but bordering on being gratingly repetitive "Surprise, Surprise", which at my count says the word 'surprise' 42 times.
Again, if the album ended on that note there may be some issues, but the last proper album track "The Last Carnival" the supremely moving elegy to Danny Federici. It's really fucking powerful, and the choir singing as the music comes down on the carnival is devastating.
And of course, there is the bonus track, "The Wrestler", which--having seen the film it was written for--makes for an album with back-to-back elegies that punches to the gut that leave you gasping for air by the time you have made your way through them.
Any doubt as to whether or not he still has it is dispensed with by the last two songs. Working on a Dream is not an album without its shortcomings, but it is quite a bit more adventurous sonically than its predecessor and has three songs that stand up to anything in his catalogue and another handful that you certainly wouldn't be upset with having seen in concert.