Optimism and Springsteen haven't gelled well in the past. "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town", the 1992 two-fer that saw Bruce waxing truly optimistic for the first time in his career, rate among the least memorable efforts of his career; they weren't bad, per se, but they lacked a certain something. (The songs were recorded without the E Street Band, which was undoubtedly a contributing factor; but above and beyond that, the arrangements and lyrics suffered from a certain sameiness and genericism that left the majority of the tracks unmemorable.)
Fans will be pleased to know that, while "Working On A Dream" (Columbia, 2009) sees Bruce once again venture into the realm of the positive, he's both a) with E Street this time and b) kept his songwriting skills on top form.
The first thing longtime Springsteen fans will notice about this album is that the focus here is firmly on the music. The album is bookended by two of his more narrative-driven songs - eight-minute epic Western "Outlaw Pete" and Golden Globe-winning movie theme "The Wrestler" - but elsewhere, it's all about the sonic experimentation, rather than storytelling. The songs here hop across a veritable plethora of genres and styles: "My Lucky Day" is a foot-stomping rocker that sounds like it was written in the "River" sessions. "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a beautiful easy-listening tune that sounds more like the '50s than anything Bruce has ever written. "Working On A Dream" is an Orbison-esque plush pop tune. "Good Eye" is what can only be described as electronic rockabilly.
This variety makes the album one of the most enjoyable listens in Bruce's history. On first listen, you've no idea what will come next: harmony-laden "This Life" segues into the cacophonous "Good Eye"; the relentless joyful "Surprise, Surprise" - possibly the Boss' poppiest tune ever - fades into the melancholy, calliope-backed "The Last Carnival", a touching track clearly dedicated to dear departed ESB member Danny Federici.
"Kingdom of Days" is one of Bruce's finest ballads of all-time: the guy from "Born to Run" is all grown up now; no longer desperate to get out of this place, he's happy to lay on "the wet grass, as autumn breeze drifts through the trees", and "count the wrinkles and the grays" of his lover beneath the covers. Bruce's maturity pervades the album: reflecting on past lovers who were "life itself, rushing over [him]"; coming to recognise that "where the river flows, tomorrow never knows".
Not everyone will enjoy every track. Many have criticised the "trite sentiment" of "Queen of the Supermarket", and the "lyrical simplicity" of "Surprise, Surprise". These may be valid criticisms, but they did not hamper my enjoyment of the album even slightly.
The deluxe version of the album comes with a 40-minute DVD that includes some footage from the studio sessions creating the album, as well as the video for "A Night With the Jersey Devil", a Halloween song Bruce released for free via his website last year.