Bruce Springsteen's Working on a Dream begins outrageously, with an eight-minute spaghetti Western of a song called "Outlaw Pete" that gallops under the power of soaring strings and driving E Street Band guitars.
It's an Ennio Morricone-influenced epic - Springsteen appeared on a 2007 tribute to the Italian film composer - that announces itself from the get-go as a lark. ("He robbed a bank in his diapers and little bare baby feet," Springsteen sings. "All he said was, 'Folks, my name is Outlaw Pete.' ") And it's a throwback to the sprawling, shaggy-dog story-songs that populated his early '70s LPs like The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.
"Outlaw Pete" signals that Working on a Dream (Columbia ***) is a different kind of album from Springsteen and the E Street Band, who will perform April 28-29 at the soon-to-be-demolished Wachovia Spectrum, where he first played in June 1973. (Tickets go on sale Monday at 10 a.m.) They'll also play the Super Bowl halftime show in Tampa on Sunday.
The Boss' 17th studio effort, and fifth in what has turned out to be his most productive decade, is largely free of the burden of portent and significance that has distinguished much of his serious-minded body of work. Those could be seen in the Sept. 11-inspired The Rising (2002) and Magic (2007), which raged against what the songwriter characterized as the corrupt nature of George W. Bush's America.
By contrast, Dream is marked by a lightness and a sense of acceptance. It's all there in the song titles: "My Lucky Day," "What Love Can Do," "Surprise, Surprise." Springsteen and knob-twiddler Brendan O'Brien introduced a new wrinkle in the E Street sound on Magic with Beach Boys- and Beatles-inspired Wall of Sound productions such as "Girls in Their Summer Clothes." They return to that on the new album's "Kingdom of Days," and "This Life" while adding Byrdsy 12-string guitar chiming to their bag of tricks in "Surprise."
Reports of Dream's frivolousness and apolitical nature, however, are greatly exaggerated. For one thing, the music is in every way a reflection of the times. If Magic was constricted with Bush-directed rage, Dream opens up with Age of Obama hopefulness from a troubadour who, after campaigning unsuccessfully for John Kerry in 2004, finally backed a winner this time around. Indeed, Obama, who said last year that "the reason I ran for president is I can't be Bruce Springsteen," could well be the secret subject of "Lucky Day," which turns on the line: "I've lost all the other bets I've made."
And while the Dream that Springsteen is toiling on is one where "love will chase the trouble away," as he sings in the album's sturdy, unspectacular title track, it doesn't arrive without struggle and strife.
There's a dark, distorted blues called "Good Eye" at the heart of Dream. In it, Springsteen's narrator is a moral transgressor who, despite possessing "all the earthly riches" - a phrase that echoes three times on the album - can't resist going down the road to perdition. "I had my good eye to the dark," he howls. "And my blind eye to the sun."
Much of the rest of the album is a flip side to that torment. It's about learning to "let the light shine through" though "we bear the mark of Cain," as Springsteen sings in the rugged "What Love Can Do." It's concerned with coming to terms with who you are, and what you have: "This life, this life and then the next," he considers on "This Life," as the E Streeters fall in behind him. "I finger the hem of your dress / My universe at rest."
The track that sticks out on Dream (in a bad way) is "Queen of the Supermarket," which just might be the worst song Springsteen has ever released on a studio album. The swooning track starts as though it might be going somewhere satisfyingly metaphorical: "There's a wonderful world where all you desire and everything you've longed for is at your fingertips." But it devolves into a randy guy's paean to a cash-register cutie. It plays like a self-penned parody, and falls to pieces in the last verse when Springsteen drops an unwelcome F-bomb. Yo, Little Steven: In your role as consigliere, couldn't you persuade the Boss to delete this one?
Luckily, as digital-age listeners, we have that option. And once "Supermarket" bags up its groceries, Dream recovers nicely. "Tomorrow Never Knows" is not a Beatles cover but a strummy, country-flavored pastoral ditty. And on "Kingdom of Days," Springsteen, who will turn 60 this year, faces up to growing old: "I count my blessing that you're mine for always / We laugh beneath the covers, and count the wrinkles and the grays."
The album is haunted by the losses that come with age. "Why do the things that we treasure most slip away in time?" the ruminative "Life Itself" asks. And it gets right down to confronting mortality on "The Last Carnival," a tribute to E Streeter Danny Federici, who recorded organ parts for the album before he died last year. Then it drifts away with "The Wrestler," the moving end-credits elegy to Mickey Rourke's combatant in Darren Aronofsky's movie.
Given Springsteen's fixation on achieving personal dignity through honest toil, and belief that communal catharsis can be achieved as long as you've got the E Street Band behind you, it's a wonder it took him this long to write a song, and call an album, Working on a Dream. Now that he's gotten around to it, he's delivered a rock-solid effort that - while it doesn't rise to the heights of classic Bruce - pushes those themes forward with dependability, levity and grace.
Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/inthemix.Album Review
Bruce Springsteen: Working
on a Dream
Columbia. *** (out of four stars). In stores today.