To understand the romantic sweep and swaggering musical ambition that define Bruce Springsteen's first album of the Obama era, you have to go all the way back to an artifact of the Ford administration: 1975's Born to Run. In those days, Springsteen was driving the E Street Band without a seat belt, staying up all night piling on overdubs: glockenspiel, surf guitar, violins, motorcycle noises. With a few exceptions, he's been paring down ever since. But on much of Working on a Dream, Springsteen finally reignites his early infatuation with the pop symphonies of Roy Orbison and Phil Spector. It's all there from the first track, an eight-minute-long, tragicomic Old West fable called "Outlaw Pete," where he does everything short of dragging an actual horse into the studio: There are tempo changes, chugging cellos, Once Upon a Time in the West harmonica wails, massed strings, crescendo after crescendo — and a lyrical closing guitar solo worthy of "Jungleland."
Working on a Dream is the richest of the three great rock albums Springsteen has made this decade with the E Street Band — and moment for moment, song for song, there are more musical surprises than on any Bruce album you could name, from the Chess Records vocal distortion on the bluesy "Good Eye" to the joyous British Invasion pep of "Surprise, Surprise." Producer Brendan O'Brien seems to have shaken something loose in Springsteen, who by the Nineties was so focused on his ever-more-novelistic lyrics that melodies and chord changes could feel like an afterthought. On their last collaboration, 2007's Magic, Springsteen suddenly started writing lush, retro-pop tunes with inventive arrangements ("Girls in Their Summer Clothes" and "Your Own Worst Enemy") — and singing out in an unexpectedly rich, open voice, one that for the first time in decades owed more to Orbison than latter-day influences Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie.
Working picks up where those Magic tunes left off, and then goes further. As much as anyone, Springsteen has mastered the key sounds of rock's golden age, and he deploys them at will on this album, diving deep into influences that he's only hinted at before on record. At least two tracks lean hard on the Byrds — the jagged, sitarlike guitars on "Life Itself" are pure "Eight Miles High," as are the close vocal harmonies on the tough little rocker "What Love Can Do." The twisted pop fantasia "Queen of the Supermarket" — the lonely narrator has an overblown obsession with a checkout girl — has a Sixties AM-radio vibe reminiscent of Manfred Mann's "Pretty Flamingo." And the dreamy, stacked backing vocals on the celestial love tune "This Life" owe as much to the Turtles as they do to Spector.
For all the overdubs on this album, the uptempo songs have a bracing, first-take feel, capturing the E Street Band's elusive live essence — Springsteen's freewheeling Seeger Sessions album may have helped bring that out. Roy Bittan's deliberately sloppy roadhouse piano and Max Weinberg's splattering cymbals make the standout "My Lucky Day" sound like Exile on E Street, with Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt sharing the chorus Mick-and-Keith-style. Springsteen has had trouble writing happy-relationship songs that rock (see Human Touch and Lucky Town), but he nails it on "My Lucky Day," which is as much fun as his best Eighties hits.
The youthful energy of the album's music collides neatly with the all-too-adult truths of the lyrics, which — at least on the surface — return to the personal and domestic, after the global sweep of his last few records. The sunny title track is a rare and timely moment of unabashed optimism, and there are some of Springsteen's least conflicted, most devotional love songs here. But even the title character of "Outlaw Pete" can achieve no more than temporary redemption, and Springsteen wonders on several songs how we can hold on to our attachments — and the best parts of ourselves — in the face of "the burdens of the day . . . the weary hands of time." Some of those tunes recount rough patches in a relationship that could stand in for larger, national issues: "Why do the things we treasure most slip away in time/Till to the music we grow deaf and to God's beauty blind," Springsteen sings on the disquieting "Life Itself," which builds tension with claustrophobic rhythms anchored by Garry Tallent's droning bass. "Why do the things that connect us slowly pull us apart?"
If you don't count the soundtrack tune "The Wrestler," tacked on as a bonus cut, the album ends with "The Last Carnival," a plain-spoken, heart-rending elegy for E Street Band organ player Danny Federici, who died of cancer last year. The tune doubles as a sequel to Springsteen's beloved 1973 song "Wild Billy's Circus Story," in which the romance of the circus stood for life on the road — here, the circus is moving on without Billy. "Sundown, sundown/They're taking all the tents down," Springsteen sings in a choked hush, at the bottom of his range. "Where have you gone, my handsome Billy?" The song ends with a choir of what sounds like Springsteen's and Patti Scialfa's layered voices, vaulting up to infinity: For a fallen comrade, it's one last opera out on the turnpike.