For weeks now — or at least as far back as a month or so ago when the first single, "Radio Nowhere" was "leaked" to the internet — the advance word on Magic, Bruce Springsteen's first album in five years with the E Street Band, has been that it's the most rocking thing the Boss has done in something thing like two decades.
Well consider the news official.
On Magic, the joyous "big noise" of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is front and center pretty much from start to finish. The big, brash drums of Max Weinberg, the ringing guitars, the carnival keyboards, the unmistakable big sax sound of Clarence "Big Man" Clemons — even the chiming glockenspiels of past hits like "Hungry Heart" and "Bobby Jean," are all back in glorious abundance on Magic.
Not that there was ever really any doubt of course, at least not for those who have seen any of Springsteen's live shows with the E Street Band since they reunited back in 1999. There are still few bands out there who can match the raw power and intensity of the E Street Band in a concert setting.
But on his last several albums, Springsteen has chosen to take his music in directions other than the "big noise" which first made him famous. This has been most true on the largely acoustic Devils & Dust, and of course on last year's folk experiment The Seeger Sessions. But even on The Rising, 2002's "comeback" with the E Street Band, a much more somber tone dominated the album. This was perhaps due in part to the subject matter related to the 9/11 tragedy, but the fact was it seemed to bleed into the music as well.
Magic on the other hand finds Springsteen and the E Street Band rocking harder than they have on any album since Born In The USA, at least on the surface. Because on this album, as was the case on Born In The USA, beneath all of the jubilation felt in the songs are characters like the guy "searching for my own piece of the cross" in "I'll Work For Your Love." On this album, we are introduced to the one who says "my faith's been torn asunder" on "Livin In The Future," and to those who "don't measure the blood we've drawn anymore, we just stack the bodies outside the door," on "Last To Die."
In fact, the common thread among the characters who populate the songs of Magic seems to be the search for a way home. On the first line heard on this album, from "Radio Nowhere," we meet a traveler who "was trying to find my home, but all I heard was a drone." On another song that is appropriately titled "Long Walk Home," the narrator finds his hometown empty, right down to the "the veteran's hall high up on the hill," where he finds it "stood silent and alone, with a sign that just said gone."
On the song "Gypsy Biker," as a harmonica emits the most lonesome sounding wail heard on a Springsteen record since The River, the townsfolk mourn the biker who never made it home from a war, by dousing his bike in flames as "the favored march up over the hill in some fools parade, shouting victory for the righteous, but there ain't nothin' much here but graves." All of this is punctuated by a fiery guitar solo.
On "Last To Die," another of this album's great rockers that musically somewhat recalls Springsteen's outtake tracks like "Loose Ends," Springsteen pointedly asks "Who'll be the last die for a mistake, whose blood will spill, whose heart will break," in the song's chorus.
On "Devil's Arcade," one of Magic's few somber ballads, Springsteen mourns a soldier with the words "remember the morning we dug up your gun, the worms in the barrel, the hanging sun."
Springsteen likewise makes his feelings on the war quite clear in the otherwise jubilant "Livin In The Future." As has been noted elsewhere, this song is a classic E Street Band rocker in the tradition of "Hungry Heart," and "10th Avenue Freeze Out," — actually, I'd have to throw "Cover Me" into that particular mix as well — where the trademark, rollicking saxophone of the Big Man is the centerpiece of the track.
But again, underlying the celebratory tone, comes word of a "letter blowin in the wind, something about me and you never seeing one another again." Later in the song, we find the same guy "woke up on election day, skies gunpowder and shades of grey." Despite the heaviness in the lyrics, "Livin In The Future" still ranks right up there as the sort of instant E Street Band classic which is going to have them screaming and dancing in celebration down the aisles on the upcoming tour (which I understand starts tonight in Hartford, CT).
One tune where the lyrics are as upbeat as the music is the Brian Wilson like "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," whose melody also recalls the Phil Spector influences heard on Springsteen's Born To Run album, and songs like "Hungry Heart" from The River or "Waiting On A Sunny Day," from 2002's more recent The Rising. Still, even here the picture perfect visions of idyllic smalltown America are broken up by the single line, "she went away, she cut me like a knife."
Magic is an album full of seeming contradictions and dichotomies. The music here is the sort of ringing, celebratory sounding rock and roll that some of us have even wondered if Springsteen still had in him. Still, never far away from that same "big noise" lies the sort of poignant storytelling that has made Springsteen such a beloved American institution.
I can't wait to hear these songs live.