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10 Years On: Revisiting Bruce Springsteen's 'Working On a Dream'

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In the context of post-9/11, post-Bush-era America, Working On a Dream’s unabashed, contagious positivity, on paper, heralded the culmination of a decade’s worth of creative output, but in reality, misjudged the spirit of its time.

Bruce Springsteen - Working On A Dream 

The music of Bruce Springsteen can always - and will always be able to - tell us something about the American state of mind. Indeed, if you were to journey through the Boss’s discography, you would find yourself simultaneously journeying through the stages of America’s national mood. Yet, on his most contentious album to date, Springsteen seemed to miss the mark.

Upon initial release in January 2009, Working On a Dream received a remarkably ranging critical reception. While Rolling Stone gave the record a five-star rating, a review on Pitchfork wrote that 'Queen of the Supermarket' - a track that depicts the narrator’s bizarre infatuation with a checkout girl "may be the worst thing he’s ever written…" Having said that, Springsteen’s sixteenth studio album garnered much the same commercial success as he was accustomed to, selling more than three million copies worldwide, reaching number one in 17 countries and the top ten nearly everywhere else. 

Ten years later, Working On a Dream remains isolated in a strange way, sitting between the politically charged Magic (2007), in which Springsteen voiced his objection to the war and the government’s intrusions on civil liberties, and his angriest album by far, Wrecking Ball (2012). Here, Springsteen seems to settle into some sense of contentment as if the world had suddenly solved all of its problems; Working On a Dream is notably upbeat, unshackled by the artist’s former worries, and contained within an oblivious bubble, which (coming from Springsteen) strikes one as being dismissive.

Perhaps such sunny positivity can be explained by the knowledge that Springsteen and the E Street Band began recording towards the end of his Magic tour throughout North America and Western Europe. Bruce wrote 'This Life', 'My Lucky Day', 'Life Itself', 'Good Eye' and 'Tomorrow Never Knows' in the space of one week and recorded them during breaks from the tour (most of which were finished in just a few takes). This marked a faster pace of production than Springsteen was used to, and the album reflects the energy of the band fresh off the road from touring.  

Nevertheless, a change of production style forced a shift in Springsteen’s writing style and, in turn, he pinpointed his focus lyrically on the fleeting nature of life. On 'Kingdom Of Days', for example where Bruce muses on the transcendental power of love over a steady drumbeat, galvanised by golden strings: “With you I don’t hear the minutes ticking by / I don’t feel the hours as they fly / I don’t see the summer as it wanes / Just a subtle change of light upon your face".   

There are moments in this album that remind you of Springsteen’s storytelling mastery. His vocal harmonies on 'This Life' has echoes of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and 'Tomorrow Never Knows' saunters in around the mid-section of the album with easygoing, freewheelin’ country swagger; “Where the cold wind blows / Tomorrow never knows / Where your sweet smile goes / Tomorrow never knows".

Conversely, opening track 'Outlaw Pete', spans over an impressive eight minutes but struggles to maintain direction. The track (which famously borrows from Kiss’s 1979 hit, 'I Was Made For Lovin’ You') is huge not only in length but in scope. At once an Old West fable and epic tale with a fluctuating tempo that allows the song to build to a never-quite-satisfying crescendo multiple times.    

               

We can't neglect to mention 'Working On a Dream', which was first performed during Springsteen’s appearance in Cleveland for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and subsequently at his presidential inauguration (not to mention the Super Bowl XLIII Halftime Show). The title track (which strives for arena-blowing bigness) sounds more like a campaign slogan than the name of a rock record. Significantly, the album as a whole marks a shift from moral social statements to overtly politically charged testimonies - something that alienated many of his politically conservative fans. 

If Springsteen’s previous albums attempt to appeal to listeners’ sense of post-911 recovery, then his efforts reach a peak on Working On a Dream, as though America was on the final stretch. To say it was more hopeful than his previous album would be an understatement, never more so than on the exuberant title track - a moment of sheer, stubborn optimism: “Rain pouring down, I swing my hammer / My hands are rough from working on a dream / I’m working on a dream”. 

While there is something admirable in this tone, looking back to when it was first released, it seems to misjudge the spirit of the time. The month that saw the album’s release also saw the worst month of the Great Recession with 800,000 jobs lost, and in 2009, the unemployment rate in the US rose to its highest since 1983. Ultimately then, although Springsteen has always aimed to trace America’s national mood, perhaps here - for once in his otherwise impeccable career - he fell short.




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