I happened to meet Steven Van Zandt's trainer last Friday. You may know "Miami Steve" or "Little Steven" from The Sopranos, or as I have for the last 20-odd years, as Bruce Springsteen's friend and fellow E Street Band member. Anyway, Clay Burwell trains Van Zandt out of High Performance Gym in Manhattan. Burwell says that, despite the meatball sandwich-stuffed look he needed to play Soprano underboss Silvio Dante on the show, the guitarist (nearing 60) is in fine shape, able to bang out high-rep sets of pushups at any time.
Naturally, I had to ask Burwell about The Boss, too. He's had a chance to train Springsteen himself in the past, and says that the rocker, who turns 60 this year, is in tremendous shape. He loves to lift heavy and his endurance is amazing. For anybody who caught Bruce's performance at the Superbowl the other night, or has seen him on tour any time since 1972, this is no surprise.
Ok, that's about all I have to say about fitness right now. I want to segue into a review of Bruce's new album, Working On a Dream.
Ready? Ok. First, let me tell you why I feel that I'm qualified to write this review, and why you should have the most utter reverence for my opinion. I am a lifelong, die-hard Boss fan, but not a blind follower who wouldn't knock the guy if he put out an album of polka music (let's hope it doesn't come to that). I'm just as enamored of his B-sides as I am with his greatest hits, and I have analyzed his entire catalogue of music using every possible criterion.
After listening to the album a good five or so times, I began asking myself one question: Why are the people we love most the hardest ones to forgive? I hate to say it, but I was a little disappointed with this new offering, and now I'm trying to figure out if it's because of him or me. We set such high expectations for people when we care about them and have counted on them to lift us up so many times in the past. Then we come down on them so harshly when they don't measure up. If Vanilla Ice releases a new album that sucks, nobody bats an eye. But Bruce Springsteen writing an album that doesn't sound like a symphony of "all the madness in my soul"? That's just not right. But did Bruce really fail me, or is he just human?
Working has a clear and good message: that a dream can only become as real as the work you put into it. That it takes dedication to find and maintain happiness, freedom, love, and a positive connection with your community. This is a theme that Springsteen has touched on repeatedly in one form or another throughout his career, and I love him for that. Unquestionably, most pop and rock music celebrates the idea of living without responsibilities--being young and rebellious, and flipping the bird to authority while you mack on its daughter in the back seat of your car. That's great and all, and Bruce has certainly written about that kind of abandon too, but I just never found that kind of music very realistic. And it doesn't sustain you.
Even on Bruce's bubbliest pop tunes, there's almost always been a dark edge--a reference to something eerie or dreadful that's either just left or could be on its way.
There isn't enough of that on his new record.
Even on "Dancing In the Dark", arguably his fluffiest, most out-of-character pop song (though it's still a damn triumph), he warns that if you "stay on the streets of this town, they'll be carving you up alright." Listening to Bruce ensures that you never leave reality. Even when times are good--you've got the girl and there's work at the factory--you can't forget the pain and problems you once knew, and it can always come back if you don't have something that, according to the singer in "All That Heaven Will Allow," "sets you straight and walking proud."
Not that I have anything against simple optimism, but Working--which is in part Bruce's attempt to summarize the optimism most of the country is feeling about the new Obama administration--is a little too early. The economic stimulus package still hasn't been passed, and from the looks of it, it may be very different when it ultimately is. Forgive me if I don't feel like rejoicing with cuts like "My Lucky Day", "Tomorrow Never Knows", and "Surprise, Surprise", which might have sounded great last election day, but now feel dated and tired.
Speaking of dated, Springsteen borrows heavily from his early rock influences on these songs. Normally, I'd be all for it, as I'm of the opinion that the greatest and most enduring sounds in rock came out in the 60s and 70s, but some of these tracks almost sound like direct lifts from earlier tunes. The orchestra hook in the choruses of "Outlaw Pete" flirts dangerously with ripping off--of all things--KISS's "I Was Made For Loving You" (though I'll bet anything he was channeling The Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains"). On "Kingdom of Days", an otherwise very satisfying ballad, I'd swear the melody from the verses of The Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" appears. I know if I were Paul Stanley or Roger McGuinn, and I had an axe to grind, I'd inquire about taking The Boss to court.
Coming after Magic, Bruce's similar sounding 2007 release that has since sold over a million copies and garnered universally good reviews, Working On A Dream feels like an inferior sequel. It's like Jaws II or Rocky Balboa--I'm glad I got to see these characters again and find out what happens next in the story, but ultimately I'm just reminded of how much better the original was.
With all this said, I can't stop listening to the album. Like all Bruce's work, you can't hear everything in it until... maybe never. There's so much for both the mind and the ear to digest. "This Life" is a Beach Boys-influenced rumination on the world that a couple can create for itself, and it features some of the richest harmonies and densest production the E Street Band has ever recorded. Blender magazine criticized "Queen of the Supermarket" for becoming a "Meatloaf song" at the three-minute mark, when a vocal effect (perhaps Bruce singing in falsetto?) hits soaring high notes. Anyone who knows Bruce knows he was going for a Roy Orbison sound, and successful or not--despite its somewhat trite lyrics--the song is powerful.
"The Last Carnival", both an ode to fallen bandmate Danny Federici (who died of cancer last year) and a sequel to "Wild Billy's Circus Story" from his second record, is an unpretentious, folky masterpiece. The best is saved for last, however, as "The Wrestler", written for the Mickey Rourke movie, is the song you'll remember years from now when thinking back on Bruce's most powerful work. With its sparse and otherworldly piano behind Springsteen's aching acoustic guitar, "The Wrestler" is the kind of austere and plainspoken song that fills the room the way a whisper does during a moment of silence. It's the kind of song only Bruce can write. The confessions of a man who can't bear to be happy are heartwrenching. And the singer doesn't have to be a wrestler in the WWE sense. He's just a guy who's given his all to serve everybody else, but doesn't know how to take care of himself, and now must grapple with his own mortality. That could be any of us.
As unsatisfying as much of Working On A Dream is, things could be so much worse. He could go the route of many old-school rockers and try to re-write all his old hits and descend into self-parody (dare I say the Rolling Stones or John Mellencamp?), or tour into infinity without new material (resign himself to being an oldie act like The Beach Boys). Yet he continues to experiment with new sounds (new for him anyway) and speak his mind. His adherence to the same sense of responsibility that he's had his whole career, the idea that he has a job to write songs that address what's really going on, means the faithful will keep buying his albums and seeing his shows, despite their imperfections along the way. And you can't stay mad at a guy like that.
So, for what it's worth, I forgive you, Bruce.