Someone on Twitter (follow us @popdose) recently wrote that Bruce Springsteen’s Oscar snub by the Motion Picture Academy was his punishment for “Outlaw Pete.” Maybe. I do know that the failure of the Academy to include Springsteen’s title song from The Wrestler in the Best Song category is one of the most egregious oversights I’ve ever seen in my years of following the Oscars. Are the Academy voters allowed to write in their choices?
I do understand the sentiment about “Outlaw Pete,” though. The song’s placement as the leadoff track on Working on a Dream (Columbia) is one of he most curious decisions in rock history. First of all, the thing is more than eight minutes long. Second, the story doesn’t make much sense. I suppose, based on his acknowledged respect for the iconic western films of John Ford, Springsteen was trying to create a widescreen western epic of his own. What he ended up with is more akin to the spaghetti variety.
I tell you this as someone who has listened to the track over and over in an attempt to understand its significance. I’ve done this because the balance of the album contains some of the best work that Springsteen has done in years. The E Street Band is in great form, despite the very noticeable lack of input from Clarence Clemons (wouldn’t a sax solo have been preferable to the whistling verse on the title track?), and producer Brendan O’Brien, working with Springsteen for the fourth time, has tamed most of his impulses toward the murky sound that nearly destroyed Magic for me.
Springsteen has once again returned to the touchstones that have guided his career for inspiration. He’s been talking a lot about The Byrds in recent years, and sure enough, the seminal folk-rock band’s influence is all over this album, as it was on Magic. Where Springsteen’s earlier music was highly steeped in classic r&b and soul, as well as ’60s garage rock, in recent years the rock influence has become more prominent. Check out the chorus harmonies on “What Love Can Do,” the stunning raga-rock guitar solo (which would have been right at home on “Eight Miles High”) on the beautiful and dark “Life Itself,” and the “Ballad of Easy Rider” homage that is “Tomorrow Never Knows” to fully understand the impact that the Byrds have had on Springsteen.
Bruce Springsteen has not only name-checked Roy Orbison in song (“Thunder Road”), he has, on occasion, appropriated the great vocalist’s operatic style for his own recordings. Consider his performance on one of the album’s strongest tracks, the towering “Kingdom of Days.” Springsteen soars Orbison-style again on the album’s title track. Speaking of the song “Working on a Dream,” I didn’t think much of it when it was released as a single. Here is a classic example of a song that grows within the context of an album. It’s one of my favorite tracks now, and though I could still do without the whistling, it’s mercifully short.
For my money, Springsteen is arguably the best rock vocalist in history. I say that because while others can do one thing well, Springsteen can do it all vocally, from the guttural to the sublime. The years have done nothing to diminish his abilities in this area. In fact, time has burnished his vocal instrument in a most appealing manner.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the touching “The Last Carnival.” It is Springsteen’s tribute to his late keyboard player Danny Federici, who died from melanoma last year. Danny’s son Justin fills in for his father on accordion. “We won’t be dancing together on the high wire, facing the lions with you at my side anymore. We won’t be breathing the smoke and the fire, on the midway.” The is the second album in a row that Springsteen has had to say goodbye to someone dear to him in song. It was “Terry’s Song” for Terry McGovern on Magic, and now this one for Danny. It’s not easy growing old, a fact that Springsteen acknowledges throughout this record.
If you’re like me, you like to consider an album as a whole. I’m not into this new world of picking and choosing digital singles. I want to hear albums that are of a piece. So I would tell you to just leave “Outlaw Pete” off of your iPod playlist for this album, but I know I won’t be able to bring myself to do it. This is the way the artist intended his album to be, and that has to be respected, no matter how wrongheaded a decision it may be. If you are willing to exclude that track, however, you will find that Working on a Dream is the best Bruce Springsteen album in years.
P.S. “The Wrestler,” which is included as a bonus track here, is deserving of an Academy Award, and if you’ve seen the film, it’s simply unforgettable.