Working On A Dream versus Magic
Because I like Magic pretty much better then anyone else (except perhaps David, who likes it plenty too), I thought I would lay out my mixed feelings about the new Springsteen album in terms of what I value in Bruce’s late work. Song for song, theme for theme, studio sound for studio sound, there is a great deal of coherence in the four studio releases since The Rising, and all have at least a few good songs, yet Magic seems to me the only one that works as an album. This seems like the moment to explain this.
To start with, David has already praised the new “Queen of the Supermarket” on this site, and I note that Robert Christgau also labels it a choice cut in this months MSN Consumer Guide. I also note that Rob Tannenbaum in Blender hates it, and I’m on Blender‘s side of the issue. While everyone else was singing the praises of “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” on Magic, the first convincer for me was “I’ll Work for Your Love,” a direct and elegiac account of hard love decades later, a song that I predicted would introduce one of the great themes of Springsteen’s old age: lust among people who don’t look so damned great in their summer clothes. So why love “Work” and not “Queen” (especially when, had I reverse it and said “Love” instead of “Supermarket” I could have changed the valences between the titles)? Because “Work” is hooked by Roy Bittan’s lovely piano, while “Queen” wastes crucial minutes on a weird synth orchestral arrangement. Lest this sound like the rather stupid claim that pianos are better then synths — if that’s true, why listen to recent Bruce at all? — let me hasten to assure you that the issue is that the piano which presents Teresa directly invokes Rosalita, Wendy, and every other lust object of Bruce’s youth, grounding the song in a past, while the abstracted synth sound of “Queen” is an ungrounded dream. “Working on a Dream”, rather then “your Love”, indeed.
Magic sounds like the end of the Bush days, like something in the political world that Bruce, or I, might want has finally happened. Rather then invoking “Magic,” or “Last To Die,” I think about the much maligned “Gypsy Biker” — Rob Tannenbaum specifically compares “Queen” to “Gypsy” — to demonstrate this. Because if it is true that “Gyspy Biker” is hardly Bruce’s first song taking place in the social landscape of broken down factory towns, and “gypsy” hardly the currently most interesting metaphor for someone passing through, it is also true that — for the first time in our political lifetimes (the Clinton years are not counterexamples) the biker can “pass through” with equanimity about “the speculators [who] made money on the blood you shed” and “come home.”
Magic works because it does actually capture that emotional moment. The Rising is a mixed bag, not the essential post-911 record. (That title goes to One Beat, although many an older Springsteen fan won’t know that because they never listened to Sleater-Kinney.) But Magic is the essential album about the fall of the Bush regime. My favorite album of ’07 was by Wussy, but no one would accuse Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver of having Bush on their minds.
If all you knew about Working On A Dream was what you saw at the inauguration and on the Super Bowl halftime show, you would assume from the title song that it will thematize the ascendency of Barack Obama in a choral/inspirational manner. Whether you like that idea, or it makes you throw up, will depend on whether you think Obama is a savior or you think that no politician is a savior so get over it. Since I’m in the latter category I’m relieved to report that Working On A Dream is not that album. Instead, it’s a true mixed bag with no identity, including enough tracks to interest you or bore you to tears. More then anything, it’s a weird album. Starting with an eight minute faux-Western that is obviously ironic, except that no one has ever claimed that irony is one of Bruce’s strengths and I’d appreciate someone helping me to understand where the irony is directed. After all, it does actually matter who “we cannot undo these things we’ve done” — stated by Bounty Hunter Dan to Pete — is directed at.
Of course, whoever it’s directed at, the statement is also true, so as a Springsteen fan I’ll take both it an the cries of “I’m Outlaw Pete, can you hear me” that make up the song’s second half at (ironic) face value. Pete can’t undo his past, nor can Bounty Hunter Dan, nor can the United States: the election of Barack Obama does not suddenly change everything. But if the election is an opportunity, Bruce doesn’t fulfill that opportunity with this record. Instead, the record is all over the place: happy in a long loving relationship in “Surprise, Surprise” (third to last song), humble in “The Wrestler” (last song), and repetitive for most of the ten songs between “Pete” and “Surprise,” songs that repeat all the essential Springsteen themes without giving them context, the kind of context that allowed Magic to work.
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