From its bright, brittle production to its tossed-off postage stamp cover art, Working on a Dream is in every respect a companion piece to Magic, an album that's merely a set of songs, both sprawling and deliberately small, songs that don't necessarily tackle any one major theme but all add up to a portrait of their time. Magic chronicled the dog days of Bush where Working on a Dream is designed as a keynote to the Obama age, released just a week after the inauguration of the U.S.'s 44th president and not coincidentally containing not a little optimism within its 13 tracks. This sense of hope is a tonic to the despair that crept into the margins of Magic but it's easy to posit Working on a Dream as pure positivity, which isn't exactly true: a hangover from W lingers, most vividly in the broken spirit of "The Wrestler," and Bruce mourning departed E Street Band member Danny Federici with "The Last Carnival." Springsteen peppers his tribute with images recalling the early days of the E Street Band but saves a revival of their wild, woolly sound for the opening "Outlaw Pete," a cavernous, circular, comical epic reminiscent of Springsteen's unwieldy portraits of rats on the Jersey Shore. "Outlaw Pete" is Working on a Dream at its best, playing like nothing less than The E Street Shuffle as reflected and refracted through Arcade Fire's naked hero worship, casually highlighting how producer Brendan O'Brien has gently nudged the Boss toward new musical avenues. Many of these new sounds are drawn from the past, often feeling informed by Little Steven's Underground Garage -- Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren's guitars chime like the Byrds; the band knocks out a tough little blues number on "Good Eye"; and Springsteen shows a knack for pure pop on "Surprise, Surprise" and indulges his ever-increasing Brian Wilson fascination on "This Life," whose percolating organs and harmonies rival the High Llamas. All this rests nicely alongside the Boss' trademarks -- galloping rockers that fill a stadium ("My Lucky Day") and their polar opposite, his intimate acoustic tunes ("Tomorrow Never Knows") -- which all make Working on a Dream read 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. A large part of Springsteen's appeal has always been how the E Street Band has sounded as big and open as his heart, but Working on a Dream, like Magic before it, has a production that 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.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine