Just after Bruce Springsteen wrapped up recording 2007's Magic, the E Street Band headed back to the studio to shoot a video – but Springsteen had bigger plans for the group. "Bruce said, 'I've got a new group of songs, and everyone's gonna be in one place,'" recalls Magic producer Brendan O'Brien. "He said, 'Let's get together while we're there and get them done.'"
Those songs – and others cut in New York and L.A. during breaks from the Magic tour – became Springsteen's 16th studio album, Working on a Dream, due January 27th. "I hope Working on a Dream has caught the energy of the band fresh off the road from some of the most exciting shows we've ever done," Springsteen said in a statement announcing the new album. "A lot of stuff was done on the fly," O'Brien confirms. "We would hear things and go, 'That would sound great, let's try that.' There wasn't a lot of dwelling."
But Working on a Dream is also an intricately arranged album, combining the dense whirl of E Street stage shows with orchestral and vocal flourishes that recall classic recordings by Roy Orbison and the Byrds. "My Lucky Day," one of the first songs cut for the album, is a burst of garage-guitar clatter with huge Sixties-pop vocal harmonies, and the dark, psychedelic swirl of "Life Itself" includes a backward guitar break by Nils Lofgren. "What Love Can Do" and "Surprise, Surprise" are both pop stomps loaded with Beatlesque guitar jangle, and "This Life" is draped in 1966-Beach Boys vocal harmonies. Ironically, "Tomorrow Never Knows" is not the Beatles' Revolver song but a Springsteen original outfitted with fiddle, strings and pedal steel guitar à la Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline.
"Bruce was into this material being more orchestral, not just capturing a live feel," O'Brien says, "and that takes different sounds, orchestrations and vocal presentations." No song captures that ambition better than the eight-minute opening track, "Outlaw Pete," a gunfighter saga with changing time signatures, a driving Steven Van Zandt guitar riff and dramatic interjections of tubular bell, marxophone (an antique keyboard instrument that sounds like a hammer dulcimer) and Springsteen's "Thunder Road"-style harmonica. The combined effect is like a Pete Seeger ballad scored by Sergio Leone. "It is a beast of music," O'Brien concedes. "We actually cut it in pieces, one step at a time. In Bruce's mind, it was 'Let's make every moment as interesting as we can.'"
Sessions continued through this fall when, during mixing, Springsteen brought in the moving finale, "The Last Carnival," a tribute to E Street keyboard player Danny Federici, who played on a few songs on the album before his death last April. (Federici's son, Jason, plays accordion on "The Last Carnival," which is followed by a bonus track, Springsteen's Golden Globe-nominated title song for The Wrestler.)
Springsteen and the E Street Band will tour behind the new album, following their Super Bowl halftime set on February 1st. A source says the tour will not be "a total marathon," probably 50 to 60 shows divided between the U.S. and Europe. One idea under consideration is a miniset each night devoted to a full performance of one of Springsteen's classic albums – "a way of addressing the past," the source says.
In the meantime, Springsteen has songs left over that could be the start of another album. "But you have to remember," O'Brien says, "when Bruce calls, it's not 'Oh, I gotta crank up for an album.' It's 'Hey, man, I've got some songs. What are you doing? Let's record.' Sometimes it's hard to tell when one record stops and another one starts."
This story is from the January 22, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.