Something’s wrong with Bruce Springsteen.
“Is there anybody alive out there?” he recently demanded on ‘Radio Nowhere’; now it’s a repeated “Can you hear me?” on ‘Outlaw Pete’.
The man must be going deaf, because it’s sure as hell not insecurity. Within two years of the chest-thumping ‘Magic’ he’s released the even ballsier ‘Working On A Dream’ which, despite its title, is no boring state of the nation address set to pomp and circumstance. Instead, The Boss’ 16th studio album is a muscular rock record that sidesteps politics to bask simply in the hope of the ‘yes we can’ generation.
Continuing his current “infatuation with pop music” (think Brian Wilson and Phil Spector, not Katy Perry) and again recorded with the E-Street band (subtlety not a strength), this is the upbeat, breezy sound of a balmy American June circa 1965. The irrepressible ‘My Lucky Day’, positively bouncing ‘Surprise, Surprise’ and nostalgic ‘Kingdom of Days’ all recall the retro sparkle of standout ‘Magic’ track ‘Girls In Their Summer Clothes’.
Larger than life love song ‘This Life’ (“A bang then stardust in your eyes”) even goes as far as to borrow the Beach Boys’ organ-and-angelic-voices signature – although it’s no match for Wilson’s ‘God Only Knows’. In fact Springsteen does a far better MeatLoaf. The majestic ‘Queen Of The Supermarket’ is almost undone by its ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ bombast – the singer’s croon just muscles out the lush strings, big drum fills and ’70s backing singers – but the big melody withstands the beating.
And, along with the playful eight-minute ‘Outlaw Pete’, it’s one of the few clear reminders that this is the work of the perfectionist who once spent six months recording one song (‘Born To Run’). There’s nothing sloppy here but, as he approaches 60, the Boss and his band feel loose and free.
The title track has an off-hand quality that only adds to it blue collar cred, the touching farewell to organ player Danny Federici ‘The Last Carnival’ has the intimacy of his solo acoustic work, and bonus track ‘The Wrestler’ goes back to the lo-fi homemade aesthetic of ‘Nebraska’.
It’s not all glory days, though. The album’s quick turnaround time alone suggests that some songs are re-heated ‘Magic’ leftovers (the thrilling but hurried ‘What Love Can Do’). Others simply seem unfinished (the borderline repetitive ‘Surprise, Surprise’). And a couple just belong anywhere else: the ramshackle ‘Bad Eye’ (swampy blues soundtrack to a piss-up complete with ragged, distorted vocals) and, continuing his Pete Seger folk obsession, the freewheelin’ hoedown ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.
Springsteen is clearly living the dream, if not always working on it.
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.