Working on a Dream: Springsteen’s most misunderstood and underappreciated album

The epic “Outlaw Pete” and the ridiculous ode to unrequited love, “Queen of the Supermarket,” are effectively parodies of Mr. Springsteen’s earlier work, standing as strong songs on their own and bringing new meaning to classics from “Jungleland” to “Cynthia.”  Call it Bruce Springsteen meets Warren Zeavon.

Working on a Dream is perhaps Bruce Springsteen’s most misunderstood and underappreciated album.  The website Pop Matters described it as a “resounding critical and popular failure,” despite an unwarranted five-star review from Rolling Stone.  All Music was a little more charitable when they noted, Working on a Dream reads “like a rich, inventive, musical album…which it is, to an extent. The ideas and intent are there, but the album is hampered slightly by the overall modesty of Springsteen’s writing — by and large, these are small-scale songs and feel that way — and hurt significantly by the precise, digital production that muffles the music’s imagination and impact.”  Ultimately, they concluded that the album “feels tiny and constrained even as it is layered with extraneous details. It’s possible to listen around this production and hear the modest charms of the songs, but the album would be better if the sound matched the sentiment.”  There is some truth to these claims:  Working on a Dream is unique in the Springsteen canon for not having at least one track that stands out as an instant classic.  The kind of song where you say to yourself this is why Springsteen is Springsteen, and not some simply above average artist.  This doesn’t mean the quality of the songs on the album is not well-above average.  They are.  It just seems like there is something slightly missing, partially what All Music referred to as the “modest charm of the songs,” but I would also suggest something deeper.  The part that is largely misunderstood:  Working on a Dream is perhaps best viewed as self-parody.  The album only exists because of the long history of work that preceded its release in 2009.  Mr. Springsteen revisits many of the same themes and topics from his earlier work in a self-referential, almost absurdist manner, more Warren Zeavon than traditional Bruce Springsteen.

In my opinion at least, Working on a Dream makes this aspect of the album clear from the very list line of the very first song, the epic “Outlaw Pete.”  The narrator intones in all seriousness, “He was born a little baby on the Appalachian Trail.  At six months old, he’d done three months in jail.”  Ostensibly, “Outlaw Pete” is set in the Wild West, telling the story of a career criminal that ravaged the land far and wide for years.  Wherever he went, “women wept and men died,” until he decided to give up a life of crime and fell in love with an Indian woman on a reservation somewhere on the Western Frontier.  His past, however, cannot be outrun so easily, and after having a child, Bounty Hunter Dan catches up to Pete at his new home.  Pete kills Dan and then flees, never to be seen again.  The song is interesting in its own right because of a simple repeated refrain that introduces fundamental questions of identity, “Can you hear me?”  Outlaw Pete himself first asks this of the bank teller he supposedly robbed at six months old.  He announces himself with “Folks, my name is Outlaw Pete.  I’m Outlaw Pete!  I’m Outlaw Pete.  Can you hear me?”  This clear statement of a criminal identity is carried through until sometime past his 25th birthday, capturing Springsteen’s penchant for both defiance and the need to be known.  It’s not enough for Pete to simply rob his victims and cause havoc.  He needs you to know it was him, and that he is not merely Pete.  He’s Outlaw Pete, something he insists on telling even God himself.  “Father Jesus, I’m an outlaw, killer, and a thief, And I slow down only to sow my grief.”  The moniker is enough for him for decades, until he has a “vision of his own death.”  At that point, he seeks an end to this life, marries, and has the child.  As “the smoke fell he held that beautiful daughter to his chest,” asking her the same question, except with a necessarily different meaning in this context.  “I’m Outlaw Pete!  I’m Outlaw Pete!  Can you hear me?”

There’s no doubt that Pete has been transformed at this point, casting aside his former life, finding a wife, and birthing a daughter of his own.  The narrator describes him as “settled down,” but Pete is not the only one who still refers to himself as an outlaw.  Bounty Hunter Dan finds him “peacefully fishing by the river,” saying “Pete, you think you’ve changed but you have not.”  Here, Mr. Springsteen gives two hints that Dan might well be correct.  First, Outlaw Pete remains too fast and deadly for the bounty hunter, piercing him through the heart with a “knife from his boot” before he could be captured or killed.  Second, and perhaps more definitively, Dan provides a statement of indisputable fact with his dying breath.  He is smiling, “as he lay in his own blood, dying in the sun.”  He whispers the truth in Pete’s ear, “We cannot undo these things we’ve done.”  This is undeniable:  The crimes Pete has committed, the people he’s killed, the grief he’s caused, the destruction he’s left in his wake are all immutable.  They are events that happened and cannot be turned back whatever direction his life takes in the future.  Dan concludes by branding Pete an outlaw forever, and restating the fundamental question of identity, “You’re Outlaw Pete!  You’re Outlaw Pete!  Can you hear me?”  This is the first time in the song Pete is not the one asking that question, completely altering the meaning even more so then when he held his daughter.  From Dan’s lips, it is an accusation and an indictment, not a statement of identity.  The defiance and the need to be heard remain the same, however.  Pete may well have gotten the best of Dan, but that’s only because he is an outlaw and always will be.  By asking, “Can you hear me?” Dan is questioning whether Pete realizes the truth of his indelible sin.  Do you know who and what you are because I certainly do, and my own death at your hands is just another reminder?

Mr. Springsteen does not share what Pete thinks upon hearing this, only that he decides to flee into the wilderness, riding for “forty days and nights” without stopping.  It is possible Pete accepts Dan’s condemnation or that he simply fears for his wife and child, realizing that others will be after him and they could be at  risk in his presence.  The precise motivation is unclear, as is the ending.  The last we know of Pete is that he was “high upon an icy mountain top.  He watched a hawk on a desert updraft slip and slide, Moved to the edge and dug his spurs deep into his pony’s side.”  Whether he “vanished over the edge” or remained “frozen high up on that icy ledge,” is unknown and apparently something of a legend because some say the one and others the second.  Pete’s story doesn’t end there, however, nor does the question of identity and its elusive permanence.  We return to the reservation where a young “Navajo girl washes in the river, skin so fair, And braids a piece of Pete’s buckskin chaps into her hair.”  For the second time in the song, another person speaks the chorus, “Outlaw Pete!  Outlaw Pete!  Can you hear me?”  But this time around the defiance is replaced with longing.  Pete is her father, outlaw or no.  Whatever his past, however he’s sinned, she wants him there, both wondering where he is and will he ever return.  This turns the question of identity completely upside down.  Pete might have been an outlaw to himself.  He might have believed he’d always be one.  Pete might have been an outlaw to Bounty Hunter Dan as well, and would always be one in that regard.  To the Navajo girl, however, he is a father first and foremost.  In her eyes at least, any previous identity he’s had has been replaced by his status as one of the people that gave her life and she wants him there whatever he may have done.  We can draw two conclusions from this, one subject to debate, the other completely clear.  Subject to debate is the notion that identities can change.  Pete might well have cast off his outlaw self, even if his past returned to haunt him.  This we do not know for sure, though it is obviously suggested.  The second is clear:  Our identity is at least partially in the eye of the beholder.  We are different things, to different people at different times for different reasons.

Taken on its own, “Outlaw Pete” is an interesting and engaging song.  A runtime over 8 minutes gives it an appropriately epic feel, and a diverse combination of musical elements featuring everything from a riff cribbed from KISS to a longing guitar melody with seemingly endless changes would make it top tier in almost anyone else’s catalog.  Springteen isn’t anyone else, however, and when you look at the song in the context of his own library, it takes on a completely new meaning.  Early in his career Springsteen was known for his epic take on modern life.  Songs like “Lost in the Flood,” “New York City Serenade,” “Incident on 57th Street,” “Jungleland,” “Thunder Road,” “Backstreets,” and “Racing in the Street” applied mythic motifs, a broad storytelling scope, and long, complex music with the challenges of living in contemporary America.  “Jungleland,” for example, features kids that “live just like shadows” and “flash guitars like switchblades.”  “From the churches to the jails, Tonight all is silence in the world, As we stake our stand, Down in Jungleland.”  In this world, there’s an opera on the New Jersey turnpike and a ballet being fought in the alley.  Life itself is a battle for identity and redemption in a reality that, while not black and white, is clearly divided by gang and social status.  The various gang members are “poets” who don’t have to write anything at all, they just stand back and let it all be.  Their fate is to be wounded, and not even dead.  The named characters include the Magic Rat, the Barefoot Girl, the Maximum Lawmen.  They are all struggling to make themselves heard, to find something, to mean something.  We can see “Outlaw Pete” as a direct descendant of this mode of storytelling, but oddly despite featuring these “modern epics” on his first, second, third, fourth, and even fifth album if you count “Drive All Night,” Mr. Springsteen had never actually tackled an epic set in another time period like the Wild West.  In fact, as his songwriting grew tighter and more personal over the years, he effectively abandoned the mode entirely.  Until Working on a Dream in 2009, there was nothing of this kind on any album since 1980, a nearly 30 year span.

Mr. Springsteen’s return to the genre that arguably made him famous and where he’s had the biggest influence on modern storytelling is different.  We’re not in the modern world anymore.  We’re in the past, where people really did shoot each and stab each other in the heart.  When the stakes were arguably higher and the world more wild.  The echoes to his earlier work are unmistakable, however.  Outlaw Pete is a more successful version of the Magic Rat, who sought a life of crime, but apparently wasn’t very good at it, dying at the end of the song.  Bounty Hunter Dan is the successor and predecessor of the Maximum Lawmen.  At the same time, we know from the very first line that none of this can be taken all too seriously.  No one has ever robbed a bank in their diapers.  The song is more allegory if not outright satire than reality, but then again the same could likely be said of Springsteen’s earlier epics.  Mr. Springsteen tends to sing those songs straight as if they truly were epics in the classic mode, but I don’t think anyone really believes there are operas on the turnpike and ballets in alleys, or that anyone is going to drive all night just to buy his lover some shoes.  It’s reality amplified.  “Outlaw Pete” is amplified and satirized, a song that is made better by being Springsteen’s last true epic (at least so far), but that also causes one to question the meaning of its predecessors.

Similarly, “Queen of the Supermarket” satirizes Springsteen’s fascination for love so unrequited the object of his infatuation doesn’t even know he exists.  It’s a classic Springsteen set up:  The “Average Joe” pines for a woman out of his league.  Sometimes, he’s made this part so explicit that the song is actually titled “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch).”  Others, it’s more subtle, like “Sherry Darling’s” reference to girls “melting on the beach” that are so fine, but so out of reach.  My personal favorite is “Cynthia,” which went unreleased until Tracks in 1998.  A construction worker literally hollers at a woman passing by every day.  “Cynthia, when you come walking by you’re an inspiring sight, Cynthia, you don’t smile or say hi but baby that’s alright, ‘Cause I don’t need to hold you or taste your kiss, I just like knowing, Cynthia, you exist, doll, in a world like this.”  The speaker is not naïve enough to believe she will ever know his name, but in a classic bit of defiance he doesn’t care.  “Well now you ain’t the finest thing I’ll never have, And when you go the hurt you leave but baby it ain’t so bad,” and “I know you ain’t ever gonna be my dream come true, That’s alright, I got other dreams as good as you, Cynthia.”  Working on a Dream’s “Queen of the Supermarket” revisits this theme in an even more heightened, satirical mode.  The woman passing by on the street is now a cashier at the supermarket, elevated to its queen.  The supermarket itself is rendered as a magical place, a “wonderful world where all you desire, And everything you’ve long for is at your fingertips,” where “aisles and aisles of dreams await you, And the cool promise of ecstasy fills the air.”  Clearly, we are no longer in the real world.  No one actually thinks of a supermarket that way, outside of a fantasy, or perhaps in the throes of a ridiculous passion, and so we are not surprised to learn that at “the end of each working day she’s waiting there.”  The Queen of the Supermarket, a dream that awaits in aisle number two.  Unlike Cynthia, this dream is for the speaker and the speaker alone.  The rest of the customers are a “sea of fools so blissfully unaware That they’re in the presence of something wonderful and rare.”  This queen keeps her own secrets beneath her white apron, showing only “eyes so bored and sure she’s unobserved.”  The narrator literally prays to God he’d find the courage to approach her, “the strength to tell her When I love I love I love her so,” but the best he can do is catch her eyes or a smile.  The eyes along lift him him up and the smile “blows this whole fucking place apart.”

On one level, it’s impossible to take the song seriously.  Supermarkets are not places where dreams come true complete with beautiful queens.  It’s overwrought, lyrically and musically.  The song hums and swells at you, in your face and completely unapologetic in its ridiculousness, but then again:  So is love.  The genius is in the parody itself.  Love can transform a rundown studio apartment on the wrong side of the tracks into a palace.  Previously, the narrator’s infatuation with Cynthia made a clock punching job just a little more bearable.  Here, it transforms a convenience of modern life, one known mainly for its readily available quantities of household goods, and into a place of worship, worthy of a nightly pilgrimage.  The one, however, cannot be separated from the other.  Queen of the Supermarket is a Springsteen love song on steroids or perhaps hallucinogens.  Viewed in that light, the song, what some insist is his worst, takes on entirely new meaning.  In a sense, the revolution in rock music Springsteen started in the mid-70’s has now eaten its own.  Mr. Springsteen is now commenting on himself, pointing out the near-ridiculous romanticism of his early work by making something even more ridiculous.  He’d been working on a dream for almost forty years in 2009, and despite being a bonafide music legend, such work is never done.

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