bruceAs one of the web’s most esteemed (and self-dubbed) Bruce Springsteen scholars, I’ve been trying for weeks to figure out what it is about Working on a Dream that enraptures me so. It’s something other than the most obvious answer, which is “because it’s Springsteen, and I love Springsteen.” That particular answer doesn’t really explain away Human Touch and The Ghost of Tom Joad, after all. No, I’ve decided that there’s a very strange explanation for this affection: Working on a Dream doesn’t really sound much like Springsteen at damn old all.

Let me explain. We’re all grown-ups here; we all know that rockers stagnate as they age. Once-great artists in their twilight years are often reduced to pale imitations; oh, sure, their new albums may offer a peak or two between songs that NOBODY WILL EVER EVER REMEMBER lesser compositions, but how often do they retain their creative vigor, the youthful viscera of their most hungry recordings? It’s rare, indeed, and I could go into a treatise of once-great artists plagued by this malaise, but it’d be reductive and full of lots of bitterness towards the Stones.

So it’s with great pride for my beloved Boss that I proclaim: after floundering creatively for the better part of the 90s treading water with undercooked versions of old-school Springsteen, new-millenium Bruce has bounced back, creatively if not commercially, through several batches of lively (and just plain GOOD) tunes and a wise refusal to adhere slavishly to his signature sound. This is a Bruce competing with the litany of new kids highjacking his sound all the way to critical acclaim, not a Bruce obsessing over his glory days. (Ha!)

And Working on a Dream sounds terrific. Bruce’s domestic bliss yields his best returns since domestic dischord proved a qualitative boon for him on 1987’s Tunnel of Love. This time, he’s writing shiny retro pop tunes, for the most part planted firmly in the soil of 60s pop. There’s a lot of Brill Building songwriting, and a lot of Phil Spector moments–think back to The River, and try to imagine an album of variances on “I Wanna Marry You”. Shoulda-been single “My Lucky Day” is the sunniest thing I’ve heard from any artist in quite a while, all tight harmonies and jangly guitars. The title track sounds like an outtake from Magic, albeit a particularly optimistic one. And the only indication that checkout-girl fantasy “Queen of the Supermarket” didn’t come from the era that it so effortlessly evokes is the surprise f-bomb. (And I’d be remiss not to mention “This Life”, which fits the milieu quite nicely, but has the best hook on the album, a soaring melody that demands summer mix slots from everybody that listens.)

In fact, Springsteen rarely missteps here. Opening up with an 8-minute folk tale (“Outlaw Pete”) might not have not been the best harbinger of things to come, and it’s far from the album’s strongest song, but it’s fascinating to listen to the keyboard-spackled Springsteen-by-way-of-Killers-by-way-of-Springsteen paradox he’s created for himself as the song’s tone. And deep cut “Kingdom of Days” threatens to be really boring, but smacks you with a killer second chorus while you’re napping. (There’s all sorts of interesting stuff nestled in the album’s second half, too–the folksy “Tomorrow Never Knows” sounds kind of Seeger Session-y, and “Surprise, Surprise” sounds like someone picked a fistful of these retro pop tunes that hopefully will prove to be new-Springsteen’s signature, and found this polished beauty among their ranks.) If there’s a misstep, it’s “Good Eye”, full of ugly distorted vocals and an overabundance of harmonica–sure, it might be the worst thing Bruce has come up with since, well, Human Touch, but residing as it does in the midst of such an impressive playlist, I’m sure we can all be understanding.

(Side note: “The Last Carnival” concludes with an a cappella outro of wordless harmonies. It sounds fantastic, but it’s interesting to note that it sounds an awful lot like the end of “Slapped Actress” by the Hold Steady, perhaps the band most notorious for accusations of E Street aspirations. Homage, or simple curiosity? Either way, it’s cool.)

Pretty much universally terrific, Working on a Dream is Bruce Springsteen’s best post-heyday record. There’s an energy and a craft here that most aging artists tend to shy away from; the songs are great, the arrangements impeccable, the production gloriously glossy. Bruce has graduated from young, grungy small-town escapee to domesticated, middle-aged troubador–and manages, in the process, not to sound worse for the wear. It’s terrific work, and I can only hope it entices back those who may have bailed on the Boss.

He may take a while to find his footing, but there’s a crucial truth at play here: you never doubt The Boss.