Sometimes I hate record critics.
Seriously: go out and google the reviews of Bruce Springsteen's latest, Working on a Dream. Almost to a one*, the reviews lead with mention of Obama's election, saddling Bruce with the impossible-to-live-up-to title of BAROMETER OF OUR TIMES. And almost to a one, they decide that since the nation's mood is optimistic (Is it? Was it when he recorded the thing? Shit, everybody I know just got laid off!), Bruce has made a happy and therefore "slight" album, since he apparently can only reflect the mood of the nation. And then they dismiss it based entirely upon the expectation that Bruce should only make ominous, elegiac albums.
That's such goddamn lazy, half-assed criticism. First off -- why does Springsteen have to reflect the political tenor of the times? Why is he so damn special/unspecial that he's not allowed to just make a record about what he wants to make a record about, i.e. who he's in love with or what happened to him yesterday or what he had for breakfast, a luxury we afford every other musician ever? Second: why wouldn't you listen to this record on it's own merits rather than stack it up to whatever came before, or whatever you think it's supposed to sound like? And third -- has Springsteen ever been about living up to your expectations? Hasn't he always charted a difficult and rather fuck-you course through rock music, and hasn't that been what's interesting about him to begin with?
RIght now, Springsteen doesn't always wanna be the political John The Baptist, crying in the wilderness. Right now, Springsteen's in love with melodies and harmonies. Right now, Springsteen's enraptured with the great pop albums of the 60s like the Byrds' "5D" and the Beach Boys' "Smile." RIght now, Springsteen's enamored of the sweep and scope of Jimmy Webb's work with Glenn Campbell or the over-the-top pomp and circumstance of Scott Walker's records. And that is the kind of record he's interested in making, and a magnificent job he's doing of it, too. Viewed as a pair with late-2007's astonishing Magic, Working on a Dream is no less than the Revolver to that album's Rubber Soul -- a multi-layered tapestry of sound that works more often than it doesn't and always shocks and surprises.
The album leads off with a gigantic, almost incomprehensibly strange middle-finger -- "Outlaw Pete," an EIGHT-MINUTE try at a western mini-opera a la "Heroes and Villains" off the Beach Boys' Smile. And like that song, "Pete" is bolstered an amazing, spiky string section that evokes the old west while still remaining forcefully modern. I'm not at all sure the song works in toto (the lyrics are funny, which is an odd but kind of wonderful vibe for Springsteen to tackle, and I'm still on the fence about 'em) but as an album kick-off it's kind of wonderfully mystifying.
From there, just like on Revolver it goes every-which-way-but-loose, from Byrdsian pop ("My Lucky Day," the sweetly psychedelic "Life Itself," the very pretty "Surprise, Surprise") to sweeping Beach Boys/ Jim Webb majesty (the frankly amazing "This Life," the tear-jerkingly-gorgeous "Kingdom Of Days") to weirdly-electric blues ("Good Eye") to the kind of Tom Joad folk that people want him to do, over and over again ("The Last Carnival," which ends with a gorgeous, surprising harmony turn, or "The Wrestler," tacked on as a bonus track and not really fitting). It only stumbles a couple times -- I love the melody of "Queen of the Supermarket" and I'm okay with the gentle gibe of it's lyric, but I'm not sure it works as a whole. And the country shuffle of "Tomorrow Never Knows," as pretty as it is, feels a little out of place amongst such staggering works that surround it.
The key, I think, to enjoying this album is to manage expectations by ditching them entirely -- which, to be fair, is how you should listen to every album ever but I know that's not always possible. Listen, though: unlike most of Springsteen's work, this isn't about the grand importance of the lyrics, although he manages some magnificent and poetic turns as always, especially on the rather darkly gorgeous "Life Itself." Instead, it's about something entirely other -- phenomenally pretty melodies, harmonies and arrangements. Like -- do we batter Gene Clark for sounding "too slight" on the first two Byrds records 'cause he's singing sweet songs about love? Do we dog Brian Wilson for being "facile" on "Pet Sounds" for the same reason? We do not, but that's because those writers are about melodies and arrangements more than lyrical depth, and Bruce isn't supposed to be. But, see, now he is about melody, suddenly, and he's doing it better than pretty much anybody else in rock these days. You have to be willing to accept the notion that a songwriter simply cannot do the same thing over and over -- that sometimes they want to do something very, very different, and how cool is that, really, especially if they're doing it well? That's the sign of someone great rather than someone merely good, and the sign of someone really great is that he doesn't seem to give a fuck what you think about him doing something different. He's just gonna do it.
Taken at that level, Working On A Dream is a glorious pop album. It's richly layered; filled with production twists and turns courtesy Brendan O'Brien, who seems to have turned Springsteen into the kind of glorious studio craftsman he's always wanted to be (see: his Spector love on "Born To Run"). Its filled top-to-bottom with the kind of magnificently-written songs that don't even really exist these days. And it rewards repeated listens, each song stacked with hidden details (a harmony part here, an organ line there) that only reveal themselves after you've already digested the stunning melodies. It isn't perfect, but it's highs hit extremely high, and it's lows are merely confusing, overly-ambitious missteps, which are always the best kind of failures, really.
I think, even if I'm the only armchair critic who thinks it, that Working On A Dream represents the second (maybe the third?) in a rather stunning late-career renaissance for a man who's never really made an altogether bad record, and whose career is really a series of highs of various heights. Give the album time to worm its way into you. It will reward your repeated listening, and you will find something to love.
*Including, of course, Chicago's Tweedle Dee of rockcrit, Greg Kot -- honestly, seeing both him and Tweedle Dum (Jim DeRogatis) give the album a negative review filled me with hope, since I almost always have exact opposite taste to these clueless bozos.