My final post of the three-week Bruce Springsteen series takes us to his most recent album, 2009’s Working On a Dream. This record was released just two years after Magic but found Springsteen in a much different frame of mind.
Released the year he turned 60 and a year after the death of E-Street band member Danny Federici, Working On a Dream finds Springsteen contemplating his own mortality. But this isn’t a morbid record — on the contrary, it’s a celebratory one. On songs such as ‘Kingdom of Days’ and ‘Surprise, Surprise,’ he embraces the joys of a long life lived well.
The musical styles of Working On a Dream were all over the map, and so was the critical reception. Some considered the record a mess, with its mash-up of 60s Phil Spector-style production, garage grunge and pop rock. Others celebrated it for the same reason — Rolling Stone called it his best album since Born to Run.
I tend to be drawn to strong work by artists of advanced age (I consider recent albums by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon among their best). There’s something about hearing these voices that have been documenting and commenting on American existence for half a century turning their attention toward their own remaining years.
One of the most powerful songs on this album is the closer, ‘The Last Carnival.’ Written as a eulogy for Federici, Springsteen reaches back to the imagery of ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ from his debut album. Thirty-six years later, Springsteen remains as relevant and as ferociously creative as on that first record. And I wouldn’t count him out for another decade or two, at least.
They’re taking all the tents down
Where have you gone my handsome Billy?
The carnival trains’ leavin’ town
Where are you now my darlin’ Billy?
We won’t be dancing together on the high wire
Facing the lions with you at my side anymore
We won’t be breathin’ the smoke and the fire
On the midway
Hangin’ from the trapeze my wrists waitin’ for your wrists
Two daredevils high up on the wall of death
You throwin’ the knife that lands inches from my heart
The light that was in your eyes
Has gone away
The thing in you that made me ache
Has gone to stay
We’ll be riding the train without you tonight
The train that keeps on movin’
Its black smoke scorching the evening sky
A million stars shining above us like every soul livin’ and dead
Has been gathered together by a God to sing a hymn over your bones
Empty are the fairgrounds
Where are you now my handsome Billy?