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Critic's pick: Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

Working on a Dream

Bruce Springsteen's fifth studio album in less than seven years isn't the sort that will help the masses — especially younger audiences who don't see him as a contemporary — understand why The Boss is such an iconic rock figure.

Working on a Dream is a pleasurable enough listen to be sure, but like each of Springsteen's 21st-century works, it has a character all its own.

It's an E Street Band record, but you would never be able to tell that from some of the grooves. It's a hopeful record when placed next to other recent E Street ventures (2002's The Rising and 2007's Magic), until you reach the concluding songs, which center on death and failed redemption. It's a record supposedly cut quickly during breaks from a mammoth 2008 tour, but with songs regularly accentuated by strings, Working on a Dream is one of the sleekest-sounding Springsteen outings to date.

The album opens with an epic, the eight-minute Outlaw Pete. The story line is vintage Springsteen. An Appalachia-born criminal wreaks nationwide havoc, flees to find domestic redemption only to face his past again in a pool of blood. “We cannot undo these things we've done,” Pete is told as he lies dying. Of course, the outlaw escapes on horseback and vanishes into folklore. Musically, it's mounted not on the usual E Street implements, namely guitars, piano and sax, but on ghostly colors of organ — a nod, no doubt, to longtime E Street keyboardist Danny Federici, who died of cancer last year — and string arpeggios. An odd combination? Hey, they worked just fine on Born to Run. The drama is simply aimed more at folkish fancy than rock 'n' roll.

Working on a Dream then settles into more expected sounds: the hopeful doo-wop vocal backdrop on the title tune, the E Street snap and assertion of My Lucky Day and the pop-savvy glow of Surprise, Surprise, one of several new tunes that echo Magic's masterful Phil Spector-esque delicacy, Girls in Their Summer Clothes.

There is a sameness to some of these interim tunes, which briefly places Working on a Dream on cruise control. But there are surprises between the cracks. The best is a wheezing blast of primal blues might called Good Eye. Here, The Boss goes wild. With Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg hammering a scrappy, soulful march behind him, Springsteen sings in distorted fury of earthly trappings and then colors the messy intensity with harmonica. It's as though Howlin' Wolf had just moved in on E Street.

On the warmer side is This Life, a song heavily steeped in vintage Beach Boys bliss that should sound sweet when Springsteen hits the road again this summer.

Then The Boss drops the payload. The album's intended finale was The Last Carnival, a eulogy for Federici that employs only Springsteen's weathered voice, acoustic guitar, choirlike vocal ambience and calliope-style keyboards to echo his fallen mate. The circus imagery, a longtime Springsteen narrative device, outlines the high-wire acts that have ceased with Federici's passing. But there is faith here, too. “We'll be riding this train without you,” Springsteen sings as a farewell.

But with the theme to the Oscar-nominated The Wrestler tacked on as a bonus track, Working on a Dream ends on an earthbound note. Entering a theater of pain where a maimed hero (“a one-trick pony,” “a one-legged dog,” “a one-armed man”) can summon smiles only by shedding his own blood, Springsteen seeks vindication for a broken life.

Place these gems next to the earlier, sunnier pop reveries and the album might seem contradictory — uneven, almost. Maybe it is. It's not a classic. Instead, Working on a Dream is the sound of The Boss still on the job. And that is encouraging news, indeed.