Friday, February 20, 2009

WORKING ON A DREAM... of my own

A Preliminary Note.
Hello. And welcome. For a long time I felt I “should” start a blog, because I’m a compulsive writer. Ah, but now … a blog wants to be written: we're a month into a new Springsteen album, 2 weeks until a new U2 album. Both will keep me occupied for some time, and so the planets are auspiciously aligned to coax my reflections on the holy Spirit, music, politics, and citizenship onto the virtual page. Thanks for visiting.

I begin with a wee prayer: Lord, make this an instrument of your Peace.

I’ve been living in a Springsteen universe for the last few weeks. Well, most of the last year, really. Was I pumped for his Super Bowl half-time show? Oh yeah. Did he exceed my expectations?? (It is television, after all: keep expectations low at all times. Even for Bruce.) YES! He was seductive and funny and ironic and larger than life. He rocked the house in true 3-hours-in sweat-soaked style, reminded me why Bruce in the recording studio can never capture the Whole Bruce, and made me fall in love yet again. It’s been almost 30 (!) years for me, and he is still a plainclothes superhero of rock’n’roll.

Ach, but…
I will confess to being a little underwhelmed by his vintage song choices, with a sliver – dare I say, a dreaded MEDLEY-ish segment – of Working On A Dream.

Let me just say this about “medleys:” any song worth its author’s time deserves the dignity of its own spotlight. Any artist who respects his own material cannot cuisinart it just to fit the time slot and “play the hits.” Gag me! Any audience lacking the patience to travel a whole song, satisfied merely with the postcard choruses of it, is not worthy of respect. So I am utterly flummoxed by Bruce’s decision to trot out just a taster of a solid and symbolic new song in the midst of some Glory Days from a couple decades past. If he wanted to introduce his new material – which is presumably one incentive for performing at the Super Bowl, isn’t it?? – then why not roll it out like thunder, instead of a tap at the door? Alternatively, if you don’t think that’s the venue for brand new material, then party on with those tried-and-true show closers, and convert the masses to the Springsteen magic!

Hadda get that off my chest. Because Bruce got me so reinvested in his art last year, with the brilliant Magic and a roof-raisin’, soul-stirrin’, rabble-rousin’, heart-breakin’, rock-revivin’ concert that cracked the whip on everyone who professes to love their neighbour.
Among many, the memory most deeply burned into my psyche from that concert is Bruce leading us in the closing choruses of Long Walk Home, like a mantra … Hey, pretty darlin’, don’t wait up for me, it’s gonna be a long walk home …Magic is the album that answers 9/11, not The Rising. We’ll talk about that more later. So with my heart (and my car) still overflowing with Magic, here comes Working On a Dream.

Time to talk about that right now.

If you’ve read this far, it’s because you’re already a Springsteen convert, or because you’re curious about him. That’ll help for your first listen to Outlaw Pete, which opens the album. It’s unlike any opening track on any Bruce record before! Maybe it hearkens back a little to E Street Shuffle and even Greetings From Asbury Park, hurtling us into some parallel universe of mythic characters… but then again, it is 35 years later, and Bruce’s writing is no longer crowded and chaotic, but lean and efficient … so Outlaw Pete is not some psychedelic snippet of a teeming mind. No, he’s a full-on archetype, and you know it in the first verse: at six months old he’d done three months in jail …he robbed a bank in his diapers and his little bare baby feet. And then the song’s, like, 8 minutes long! It’s an epic tale of good and evil …and redemption and transformation and society. I’m sure there’s a myth and lit. scholar out there somewhere who can tell us which myth he’s recasting in the Wild West (I pick up Hugo’s Les Miserables in it, myself), but much to my surprise, I love this song. Taken cold, its narrative might seem to be trying too hard, stretching beyond his usual working-class minimalism … but the dang melody, and Bruce’s delivery of it, takes it to that mesmerizing shaggy-dog story-telling place that Bruce occupies in a special way.

There are a couple other spots on the album that amplify the politics of Magic, such as What Love Can Do – a sort of anti-anthem, dark but uplifting in a post-Bush world; but most of it turns more inward, to the value of authentic relationships and long-time commitments. There’s a farewell to Danny Federici, The Last Carnival, that will make you weep if you’ve shared the band’s journey for any number of years. Especially if you already know that Dan’s son is playing the organ on the track.

There’s a pair of stunners about growing old together in love, This Life and Kindgom of Days. The poetry is rich: this life, this life and then the next/ with you I have been blessed… I finger the hem of your dress/my universe at rest as the song contemplates the stars and our “lonely planet.” Likewise on the soaring Kingdom of Days: With you… I don’t feel the hours as they fly/I don’t see the summer as it wanes/just the subtle change of light upon your face. Maybe you have to be of a certain age (or at least your relationship does) to appreciate the tender respect in those verses. Or maybe you don’t. I just know it’s an awful lot of fun to listen to this almost-60-year-old rock star into his fourth decade of telling his stories.

Springsteen gives us an unexpected political (or is it spiritual?) psycho-blues vignette in Good Eye … except of course he already brought us there a few years back when he used that psycho harp to reinvent his 1982 folk dirge, Reason to Believe. In Good Eye, you hear the voice of a lost soul who’s equally pathetic and terrifying. Bruce may be a poet … but he is above all a writer of songs, who uses music to tell the story right.

I’m reminded a little of the first Dwight Yoakam album I bought. I’d never been a country fan of any description, but the timbre of that voice and the flash of his Nudie jackets finally seduced me, and I bought A Long Way Home. I was shocked and delighted to hear not only pure bluegrass hillbilly on that collection, but also deep strains of Orbison and Elvis (and a little bit of Buck, although I didn’t know it at the time). Those deep pop roots are a mainstay of Dwight’s writing, and I love hearing Bruce’s AM radio roots so clearly in his own work … In Surprise, Surprise, Bruce resurrects his inner Ronette, and in Tomorrow Never Knows you’ll hear strings and steel guitar … understated just enough to invoke John Wesley Harding rather than Tammy Wynette.

Upon the album's release the papers made reference, I noticed, to Bruce’s new fetish for his remodeled neighbourhood grocery store. A word or two about Queen of the Supermarket, and I’ll get it out of the way. Such a lovely melody, oh my god such a groaner of a lyric! Here (and in the first verse of the otherwise sweet, fatherly Surprise, Surprise), Bruce lapses into a clunky literalism … Full disclosure: I spent years in a checkstand myself, and I’ve seen the guy who’s singing that song. To hear the dailiness of “groceries” and “bagging” from the mouth of my poetic hero sends me screaming from the room. At least he doesn’t sing about price checks … But it isn’t merely the too-close-to-home squirm factor that’s troublesome. The truth is, Bruce told the same story with gorgeous brevity in Girls in Their Summer Clothes. Supermarket merchandising has become very sophisticated indeed, but if the likes of Bruce are going to be suckered by it…don’t shop when you’re writing a record! I hit the forward button on my car stereo most times it comes on, and I can be friends with the rest of the CD.

Magic is one of those albums (most bands are lucky to have one per career) that demands to be heard by everyone, as much by its times as by its creative achievement. The same was true of Born to Run and probably Darkness on the Edge of Town, given the corpulence of 1978 Top 40 music… Working On a Dream is a humbler album on the Springsteen scale: like Devils and Dust or Lucky Town, it is the work of a master, rewarding for anyone interested in maturity, vision, and rock’n’roll. For those of us who’ve walked the journey with Bruce, it’s a gift of intimate conversation and camaraderie.

And it ends with the “bonus” track indeed, a gleaming jewel of Bruce’s talents, The Wrestler (notwithstanding the Hollywood Academy). Minimalist perfection, period.

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