Again the roundtable convenes, this time, for Bruce Springsteen's Magic. We've been waiting … and waiting. Oh, how we've been waiting. Though I did avoid early leaks of the record, I couldn't wait for the CD release. The vinyl album came out a week early. Mmmmm, the smell of fresh 180 gram vinyl!
Someday, the three of us will get together over a pitcher of beer and toss these ideas around. For the time being, please join me, BC editor Josh Hathaway, and BC executive editor Lisa McKay as we break Magic open and maybe discover a little bit about ourselves in the process.
Well gee, wasn't the buildup fun? Okay, sort of. It did seem like a very long time between the original announcement and the eventual release. Heck, I had the thing a week early on vinyl and the wait still drove me to distraction. I was amazed that both of you had the willpower to ignore the leaks, "Radio Nowhere" excepted. Very impressive.
But on to the record. This is very interesting, because for the first time in a long time, I'm having flashbacks to Darkness On The Edge Of Town. The first listen gave me a general, somewhat hazy feeling that I'd just experienced something special. Repeat spins would obviously be necessary to fill in those gaps. On about the fifth pass, the shape of the record began to emerge. I started to remember song sequences and transitions, instrumental breaks, snippets of lyrics, themes, and moments of "oh!" Yeah, don't we all live for moments of "oh!"?
Sonically, Magic came into focus as a collection that mates the best parts of Darkness and The River. Guitars grind, glockenspiels chime, and pianos & keyboards accent the melodic lines. It's common knowledge that Bruce is a fan of many pop forms, and here it's gratifying to see him indulge. Songs like "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" and "I'll Work For Your Love" are a welcome additions to the Springsteen palette. We've all been wondering if the "real" E Street Band would ever return, and now we have our answer — Clarence's blustery horn seals it.
Thematically, Bruce plays a sly hand by mixing unlike ideas and sounds. "Livin' In The Future" is an unforgettably bouncy tune. The theme, however, is as serious as your life. The same can be said for "Girls In Their Summer Clothes," which sounds romantic but is more of a wistful look back. For me, it all works. Shocking words coming from the "not a lyrics guy," I know.
I've never worn out a CD before, but this disc is in mortal danger.
After listening to pretty much nothing else since Tuesday, I have to say I'm still absorbing this and have a long way to go. My initial impressions? I love this album. Magic stands right up there with some of his very best work, and the thing I really love about it is that it's partly all the things that make Bruce and this band so great, and partly an excursion into a brave new world. Clarence's sax, those stirring choruses, that big noise that this big band makes — all familiar, and what could be better? Bruce talked in a New York Times interview a week ago about his "reinfatuation with pop music" and he uses it to tremendous effect here. A couple of things sound different enough to have nearly startled me when I first heard them, "Your Own Worst Enemy" being a prime example. Where did that opening come from?
As much as this work represents a return to form for the E Street Band, I feel like Bruce has turned a corner personally. For one thing, even though the music is uplifting and pop-inflected, the lyrics? Well, not so much. Unlike much of Bruce's body of work, in which redemption was somewhere down the road – at least a possibility if you worked hard enough and your belief was strong enough – this record sounds more like the work of someone who's trying to come to terms with the notion that faith in a good outcome might not always be enough to see you through. It's hard to watch humanity make the world worse instead of better for over 50 years and not lose your optimism or your faith in the notion that people will always do the right thing. As is always the case, Bruce makes the political personal — "Gypsy Biker", "Devil's Arcade", "Last to Die" are all intimate portraits that tell a much larger story, and it doesn't have a happy ending — and I have to say that when I listen to the album in its entirety, the overwhelming feeling I have is one of sadness. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
The highlights? I figured when "Radio Nowhere" was released that there would be even better things to come, and I was right. "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" is transcendent — and a perfect example of a soaring pop melody with a stinger in its tail. Everywhere on this record are bits and pieces of disappointment mixed in with the portraits Bruce usually paints. His eye for detail is still good, and his songwriting reaches near perfection on "Long Walk Home", which at the moment is my favorite track. This verse sums up what's great about this record, and I get chills pretty much every time I hear it:
My father said, "Son, we're
lucky in this town
It's a beautiful place to be born
It just wraps its arms around you
Nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone.
You know that flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do
and what we won't."
A pop record with some great material for the tour? Most certainly. A political record? One of his most consistently political records yet, I think. He opens the proceedings with "Radio Nowhere" and poses the question: Is there anybody alive out there? Having listened to this for a few days now, I'm still not sure I know the answer.
My initial reaction after having heard the first six songs on the record was that I understood what was missing from The Rising. Magic is what was missing. Elements of the classic Springsteen sound long forgotten have returned in a big way on this record. I didn't realize how much I missed them until I heard them here — all the more reason his older albums need to be re-mastered, but that's another day on Donahue.
"Livin' in the Future" embodies more of what makes Springsteen great than any song he's written in the past quarter century. It might not be the best song in that span but it is a brilliant reminder of why we're still listening. "I'll Work For Your Love" combines the chaotic noise elements of "Born to Run" and the dramatic scope and inimitable piano work of Roy "The Professor" Bittan, all under the umbrella of an earnest-sounding title. "You'll Be Coming Down" is a pleasant album track that doesn't seem to be going anywhere special until Clarence "Big Man" Clemons breathes into it the fires of life.
The Rising — still a good record — seemed born of necessity. He felt compelled to make a post-9/11 record that embodied the entire scope of the emotions of that day. It was an impossible task and the album suffered under the oppressive weight of those efforts.
Magic doesn't suffer from those same ambitions, at least not musically. I don't know if Bruce had to be reminded by someone or if he came to this conclusion himself, but there is nothing wrong with Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band making records that sound like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The Seeger Sessions was a nice place to visit. Magic is where he lives, and the band is his neighbors.
Lyrically, Bruce is anything but content and that makes for a deeper, richer album. Springsteen has always written with a sense of bold purposes and big themes, and that serves him well on Magic. Unlike so many bad protest songs and protest records written in the post-9/11 world, Springsteen has not dated himself by tying his discontent to specific names and dates. These words can be applied to the Bush administration and the times we live in, but they could have been written 50 years ago and will be just as relevant 50 years from now. If I had to venture a guess, that is as much at the root of his discontent as anything else. A lifetime of observation and activism is in its second half and measurements of progress are taken in inches, not miles.
Magic is a major work in Springsteen's spectacular discography and stands tall with the best albums of his career.
Mark, I hear the flashbacks of Darkness. I also hear the grand productions of Born to Run, and the gusto of Born in the USA. "Gypsy Biker" would never fit on Nebraska, but that mournful harmonica sure as hell would have. Come to think of it, it's not too different from the harmonica on "The Promised Land" (which is God's favorite song). Sonically and lyrically, this is about as good as it gets.
Lisa, you really have the pulse on the lyrical themes. This does not sound like the Bruce who believes in "The Promised Land" (which is still God's favorite song). The Rising was a lamentation of the losses of September 11th. Magic is the bitter disappointment and shock at the events that followed, events that go much deeper than George Bush and Iraq (although he's not happy about that, either). This is about who we've become, what we care about, and who we care about. It's about the presence of fear and the absence of trust. It's about the absence of anyone worthy of our trust. These themes are timely and timeless, and Bruce has written an album that is the same.
You're both right (and when have I ever said that before?!). Bruce's themes have taken a different turn, and there are corresponding musical shifts as well. Lisa mentions the opening to "Your Own Worst Enemy," which brings up a musical point that I've neglected to mention: the usage of descending melody lines during the opening passages. They're also used in "I'll Work For Your Love" and "You'll Be Comin' Down." To my ears, this adds a mist of somber to an already pensive collection.
Still, we can't conclude that Bruce's mood has gone rigidly serious. While Josh makes a great point that the lyrics don't directly connect themselves to particular events, Bruce did in fact list many concrete problems in his quick "Livin' In The Future" introduction — yet, just before the last clanging chord of "American Land," he shouted out "Long Live Happiness!!" I couldn't agree more.
We're obviously all on the same page with this one (much more than we were over The Seeger Sessions), so can we agree to agree?
Mark, it's interesting that you brought up both Darkness and The River, because I hear that, too. And you're dead on about the return of the E Street Band.
And Josh, your observation about social progress being measured in inches and not miles is phrased so beautifully it makes me sad not to have written it myself. I think it sums up much of what I hear in this album, and I guess what really hits home it is that I feel much the same way these days.
The great paradox of this music, born out of frustration and discontent, revealing perhaps a weariness of the soul, is that it somehow lifts my spirits and turns my vision outward again. Not a small accomplishment, I'm thinking.Powered by Sidelines