“I don’t believe in magic.”
—“Countin’ on a Miracle”, Bruce Springsteen
Last time around with the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen was on a mission, offering a spiritual balm for the country and his own community in New Jersey/New York. The Rising‘s songs were fittingly somber, and if the album was overlong, it seemed an apt return. Five years have passed and the tragic events that led to The Rising are still in play.
Now we have a switcharoo with Magic, an album that resumes the glorious Born in the USA daze, of lighthearted girls on summer bicycles, and that hard guitar-and-sax sound. The truth is, like Born in the USA, the new album brims with heartache just under the surface, Springsteen just doesn’t hit us over the head from the first drum beat (the curtain isn’t lifted until “Last to Die”, a scorching rocker that pays homage to former presidential candidate John Kerry’s assertion about wasted life in Vietnam).
Springsteen, 58, has developed a sense of patience. He has learned to entertain with lyrical card tricks, hypnotizing us with his band of brothers and then suddenly revealing the Elephant in the room. Are we amazed to discover that life is a constant battle, not only with ourselves psychologically but in the Middle East where a bloody civil war continues?
Either way, that’s not how Magic begins.
Magic opens with the guitar-dense, glossy “Radio Nowhere”, which some believe uses chord progressions from Tommy Tutone’s 1982 smash “867-5309/Jenny”, but Springsteen is guilty only of recycling his own themes and amping up the guitars. More telling is that “Radio Nowhere” would have been a throwaway in the early ‘80s. His plea of wanting to hear “a thousand guitars and pounding drums” is exciting and over the top, but the song lacks the focus Springsteen is famous for.
“Radio Nowhere” recalls both “No Surrender” (whose optimistic message was used by Kerry as his campaign theme) and the unreleased “Action in the Streets” (in his cries of “Is anybody alive out there?”), but plays out with less conviction than its precursors in spite of Max Weinberg’s mighty drums and effective multi-tracked vocals. Noble in its failure to truly inspire, when he sings of “trying to make a connection to you” it’s like he is reaching out to a legion of middle aged fans. Luckily there are 11 other reasons to return to the fold.
Bruce Springsteen - Radio Nowhere
The dozen tracks, including a hidden tribute to a recently departed friend in “Terry’s Song”, cover the Springsteen spectrum in terms of sound. After “Radio Nowhere” the songs are more resonant with every note. The plaintive ballad that ups the ante, largely due to Clarence Clemons’ sax solo, is “You’ll Be Comin’ Down”. Clemons may get the award for Most Improved as the music is filled with occasionally soaring, always effective horn parts at a time when it seemed his “Jungleland”-prowess was long behind him.
“You’ll Be Comin’ Down” is marked by Springsteen’s gruff vocals and a grim adage about getting older. “You’ll be fine long as your pretty face holds out, then it’s gonna get pretty cold out,” he sings, before concluding, “you’ll be comin’ down now, baby.” Talk about a reality check. A sharp, piercing sax opens the jaunty neo-rockabilly of “Livin’ in the Future”, a seamless meld of River earnestness and Born in the USA blast. Danny Federici’s organ break at the midway point assures the song is a fun romp, though Springsteen keeps assuring us “none of this has happened yet” as if wishing present woes away is as easy as washing off one’s sins in a river.
“Your Own Worst Enemy” plays out like Brill Building pop, all violin and timpani though its tale of utter defeat leaves one character unable to sleep at night, and unable to dream. If Roy Orbison had lived to cover this song, it would have been a late career masterpiece. Far more grim images appear in “Gypsy Biker” about a motorcycle rider who suffers an unexplained fatal accident. Written in the style of one his early American epics, bringing to mind his character Jimmy the Saint who may have lost his “senses to the war” in “Lost in the Flood”, it is fueled by mystery and honor, with a harmonica straight out of “The Promised Land” and particularly tasteful guitar by Springsteen.
For the sheen provided by producer Brendan O’ Brien, reprising his role from The Rising, a couple of songs hark back to Darkness on the Edge of Town in tone. The best of these is “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” featuring an expressive Springsteen in the dog days of summer observing not only girls riding bicycles but other details of his hometown. Soozie Tyrell’s buoyant violin opens it up, yet Springsteen’s voice is melancholy as he hovers like a specter over the Jersey Shore, recalling fading images of the season and the Asbury Park boardwalk.
The gorgeous “I’ll Work For You Love” is carried along by Roy Bittan’s sparkling piano, and the song is such an anachronistic bit of ear candy it would make a gleeful single if radio still played classic pop. You can hear the wings of doves flutter in “Magic”, which has an easy gypsy feel thanks to Steven Van Zandt’s old world mandolin and Tyrell’s violin. “Magic” is the Zen centerpiece of the album, with Springsteen talk-singing about an acceptance of life with knowledge of a fire down below: “Trust none of what you hear / And less of what you see / This is what will be / This is what will be.”
“Last to Die” will be a showstopper live with the E Street Band, as it’s a sober update of The River‘s “Roulette” only the danger is overseas instead of the backyard. It’s a nod to Kerry, who testified before Congress as a young Vietnam veteran, asking “how do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?” There’s a Middle Eastern tinge as the song winds down, but this is nearly drowned out by the triple guitars of Springsteen, Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren.
“Long Walk Home” is the feel-good song on Magic, and though it is full of Springsteen clichés (a decaying downtown, flag flying at the courthouse, a father’s plainspoken advice), it coalesces into a heartfelt reunion of ringing guitars, relentless drums and Clemons’ most assured horn playing on the album. It is the missing link between the downhearted characters who inhabited The River and Born in the USA, offering hope of community in the midst of chaos.
Static and sad violin begin the bittersweet love song “Devil’s Arcade”, where Springsteen leads us through a romance and relationship that is cut short by enlistment. No details are given of the traumatic war injury that leaves the soldier in a VA hospital: “In the ward with the blue walls, a sea with no name / Where you lie adrift with the heroes of the devil’s arcade / You sleep and you dream, your buddies Charlie and James / And wake with a thick desert dust on your skin.” Tyrell’s violin tries to wrap around the stinging notes of Springsteen’s guitar, but nothing connects and Weinberg’s snare and bass drum simply fall off course until they crash. All that’s left is the beating of a heart.
After the runaway success of Born in the USA, Springsteen felt compelled to dramatically tinker with his sound, enough to rethink his band and even let go of the working class ethic he had championed for much of his adulthood. That’s the Ace-high straight that he was dealt after selling 15 million copies of his 1984 opus, and by having both major presidential candidates try to surreptitiously coax his support. Springsteen felt manipulated at the time.
During the 2004 national election, in a move of uncharacteristic candor, he campaigned for Democratic candidate Kerry. The endorsement did not make a dent in the campaign, nor affect American foreign policy in Iraq, for which he sang an aching commentary in 2003’s “Devils & Dust”. Having recorded a series of better writ, more artistic albums than Born in the USA -– though few as overtly dynamic—Springsteen has been riding the other side of the Rock Star crest for some time and Magic will be hard pressed to work a miracle. But with his mates in the studio, Springsteen remarkably captures some of that elusive lightning while teaching us about the ties that bind all over again.