It's really hard to understand some of the early negative, even hate-filled reviews Bruce Springsteen's new album has received in newspapers and on the Internet. To add insult to injury, he was snubbed by the Oscar nominating committee for his theme to The Wrestler (which concludes the new album), even though it won a well-deserved Golden Globe several weeks ago. Some publications and Web denizens have gone as far as labeling "Outlaw Pete," the epic album opener, as well as the beautifully poppy "Queen of the Supermarket" and the sublime "Surprise, Surprise" as being among the "worst songs" of Springsteen's career.
To this critic's ears, though, that first song is almost spaghetti Western-like in its scope and ambition, complete with Ennio Morricone references (which, believe it or not, are also rock 'n' roll references, as everyone from the Ramones to Jack White and the Raconteurs would tell you). The second song is pure Roy Orbison via the Beach Boys. (And who hasn't had a crush on a mystery person who works at the local market at some point in their lives? I know I sure have.) Best of all, "Surprise, Surprise" is pure Merseybeat-meets-the-Byrds (even if those were almost the same thing), circa 1964-'65, and although that kind of music certainly influenced bubblegum, the song surely ain't "bubblegum," as some reviews have erroneously termed it. Nevertheless, admirers of all three musical forms — that would be Merseybeat, folk-rock and bubblegum — might find the song to be transcendent.
Here are the facts: Springsteen will turn 60 this year. He's no longer the 25-year-old musical renegade who made Born to Run. And yet he returns here to many of the musical roots that most influenced him back then — Phil Spector, Orbison, Brian Wilson (more so than ever; not just on "Queen of the Supermarket" but also heavily on "This Life" and several other spots on the album), early '60s rock 'n' roll radio (for the first time in three albums, Brendan O'Brien's murky production finally works here), even Howlin' Wolf ("Good Eye"). "Tomorrow Never Knows" not only nicks its title from the Beatles and its opening moments from the intro to CCR'S "Lookin' Out My Back Door," but it then jumps headfirst into a melodic folk ballad that would do, say, Gordon Lightfoot proud. And to use that word again, it sure all sounds pure to these ears, even though he's revisiting those roots from the perspective of a much older person, now closer to death than to childhood.
This is Springsteen's third album with the E Street Band since their 2000 re-formation; it's also the first not released in the midst of the Bush regime of fear and foreboding. And, yes, as its title and influences (and even some of those negative reviews) would suggest, it is more hopeful and brighter than the previous two. And yet, during the last several years, Springsteen has lost several people very close to him, including his longtime personal assistant, Terry Magovern, and E Street Band organist Danny Federici, who'd played with him longer than any other musician. So Working on a Dream also has a strong current and sense of mortality running through it; titles like "This Life," "Life Itself" and "Kingdom of Days" (all beautiful tunes, by the way) alone should make this apparent. The message seems to be life is short and fleeting, death is always just a step away ... and, in the end, love is truly the most valuable thing we share as humans.
As such, the love songs here are anything but trite, despite some haters calling the lyrics to "Surprise, Surprise" ("Surprise, surprise, c'mon open your eyes and let your love shine down ...") exactly that. I don't agree, of course, but you know what? When music is as glorious and full of melody and marvelous hooks as that particular tune is, it really doesn't matter what the lyrics are. They could just as easily be "Goodbye, goodbye" or simply "Sha-la, sha-la"... and it would still sound the way lots of pop lovers think that true love should sound.
Time should prove that this one is among his very best.
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.