I’ve never had a good sound system. I played piano for nine years, quit, and now can’t tell a minor from a major third interval. My pitch was okay when I sang every day in high school—it’s flat now. And, I haven’t thought of myself as a poet since I started reading poetry in college.
But I can sometimes know a brilliant album when I see one, because despite all my limitations, I’m an artist, and Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream is a gift to us all. Yes, it has the E Street Band. Yes, it was mixed by an industry guru, produced by predictably powerful and talented people, etc. etc. The design of the booklet is profoundly beautiful.
But listen: the deeply political, blatant rage and community strife that appeared on the Rising and matured on Magic has become the stuff of fantasy, legend, and myth on Working on a Dream. A new beast has come to live with us—and her plumage is formidable.
Firstly: “Working on a Dream” as an album title is perfect for our current political situation. It’s perfect for our current situation in the arts. It’s perfect for anyone who has a notion that things could change for the better in their own life or in their neighborhood or their world. Bruce is saying: dreams don’t just happen to you in your sleep—you’ve got to get your hands dirty to make them happen. He’s always been a master at that message and we’re lucky he’s still at it.
But it gets more complicated. The very first song on the album is nearly 8 minutes long, an epic, a story about a man named Outlaw Pete who battles his own destiny. Think old Western, think Star Wars (Annakin), think Odyssey. The first song. The one that is supposed to draw audiences in. What audacity and commitment to artistry it is for Bruce to put a song that will never be a radio hit at the helm. Outlaw Pete is a man who is born into his legacy and then tries to change it—but the world around him tells him it’s impossible. There’s a wailing harmonica solo that was taken directly from one of the spaghetti westerns, so Max Hodes (who has just moved from Boston to LA! Huzzah!) says, and the refrain “I’m Outlaw Pete/ Can you hear me?” moves from comic assertion of identity (he’s a baby in diapers robbing a bank) to tragic plea for connection (he’s a father about to abandon his family in a forced return to violence) to blatantly philosophical question of origin (he’s being addressed by his daughter in the eternal return).
This album has love songs: to a lover, to the world, to music, to art in general, to Life Itself. This album has a working-class anthem to the distinct and imperceptible-to-the-masses beauty of a supermarket queen, a carnival tribute to the late Danny Federici, a blues number with one of my favorite blues lyrics: “I had my good eye to the dark and my blind eye to the sun.” It’s a series of comedies, parodies, tragedies, and sweeping images of us all driving forward, like a freight train, motion without predestination, possibility embodied, like Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit just before he seals his fate with his gun. We, on the other hand, might just get redeemed.
While Magic was more obviously political, and righteously angry, Working on a Dream offers us a trip into the stratosphere of Bruce’s narrative world, and it’s there we find hopes for community living, honest love, and inspired legacy. He’s always had a humility about the last piece, but it’s undeniable. Just as Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s narrator finds himself inspired to action against colonialism after the death of his activist second wife (Book 3 of the Buru Quartet), Bruce’s narrative character in “What Love Can Do” says:
When the bed you lie on is nails and rust
And the love you’ve given’s turned to ashes and dust
When the hope you’ve gathered’s drifted to the wind
And it’s you and I my friend
You and I now friend
Here our memory lay corrupted and our city lay dry
Let me make this vow to you
Here where it’s blood for blood and an eye for an eye
Let me show you what love can do
Let me show you what love can do
I’ve got a lot of listening and talking to do. There’s no substitute for continued attention on a piece of art. But I wanted to make plain, on the evening of its first play, that Working on a Dream is already one of the fantastic additions to my world, my life, my work, my community, my self. I cried, wept, was moved by this album—not just because I feel somehow “connected” to the characters described, which happened, but because of the deep bolstering it offered to all of us who are, every day, swinging a hammer and working on the Dream.