Bruce Springsteen Magic

Bruce Springsteen’s 2007 LP ‘Magic’ Has Been Overlooked for Too Long

Bruce Springsteen’s Magic is one of his best, most cohesive albums, but it tends to get overlooked when considering his career. Here’s why it shouldn’t be.

Bruce Springsteen
25 September 2007

In the wake of Bruce Springsteen‘s 2002 album The Rising, his popularity and critical attention surged, making him once again a vital part of the pop music conversation. In the two decades that followed, Springsteen has continued to release albums, most lauded, some less successful. Amid this late-career output, Springsteen released Magic, one of his best and most cohesive albums to date and one that tends to get overlooked when considering the man’s lengthy career. Here’s why it shouldn’t be.      

The first sound you hear on Bruce Springsteen’s 2007 album, Magic, is an electric guitar. That’s a statement of purpose, coming on the heels of two departure albums – 2005’s solo, semi-acoustic Devils & Dust and 2006’s folk covers rave-up We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Magic also functioned as a follow-up to 2002’s well-received The Rising, which was all about statements of purpose, having to serve as both the E Street Band reunion album and as a touchstone for a nation and world still reacting to 9/11. It’s a tall order for a rock album, and Springsteen largely succeeded. The Rising was critically and popularly lauded, nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys, proving that Bruce Springsteen wasn’t just a legacy act. He still had something to say.

But what, exactly, was it? Without a national tragedy to wrap a concept around and with little time to air out the new-reunion smell, what did Bruce Springsteen and his backing band have to contribute? It’s all there in that guitar.

Magic’s first song and first single, “Radio Nowhere”, can easily be read as a lament from a boomer-era musician hating on today’s pop music. That’s a cynical take and one not entirely out of place on a record with few of them. But in 2007, pop and rock were in love with Springsteen. Indie acts like Arcade Fire and the Gaslight Anthem were working within the Boss vernacular, and both the Killers‘ and Lady Gaga‘s second full-length albums swerved away from the glam-pop they made their names on to emulate Springsteen’s sound. Gaga is even name-checked both Nebraska and Born to Run on the track “You and I” and borrowed Springsteen’s longtime sax player, Clarence Clemons, for her hit “Edge of Glory”. The adulation was anything but subtle.

In this context, it’s more accurate to think of “Radio Nowhere” as reaching out, wanting to find someone to bond with, talk with, to understand. It’s a sequel to the twin Nebraska songs of “State Trooper” and “Open All Night”, where the radio’s jammed up with gospel and talk shows. Here, all he has is a “dead dial”, and he needs the sort of rock and roll he knows is out there to break through the silence. “Is there anybody alive out there?” – a crowd-rallying cry he’d been asking of his concert audiences for years – crops up here, as does his admonition that he’s “trying to make a connection with you”. That’s why that electric guitar is so important. It’s the only thing that can cut through the din, the dark, the bullshit. It’s the only real salvation.

It’s also important to note that Magic is an album borne from the presidential reign of George W. Bush. It’s easy to forget just how terrible it was with W, especially now in our ongoing Trumpian nightmare. Immediately post-9/11, the country seemed to be united for about a millisecond before the Bush regime started two divisive wars, embraced torture, and utterly botched the response to New Orleans’ devastation following Hurricane Katrina. It was bad times, and when introducing Magic’s title track in concert, Springsteen directly commented on the president’s ability to sell snake oil: “This is about living in times when the truth gets twisted into lies, and lies get twisted into truth. So, it’s not about magic. It’s about tricks.” That title song, the quietest on the album, glides so deftly from metaphor to subtext to text that it’s a little chilling. From “I’ve got a coin in my palm / I can make it disappear” to “I’ve got a shiny saw blade / I’ll cut you in half while you’re smiling ear to ear” to “there’s bodies hanging in the trees” hits on everything from the two recessions to the Red State/Blue State division to Guantánamo Bay, all in about two and a half minutes.

“Magic” isn’t the only overtly political song on the album. “Last to Die” takes Senator John Kerry’s rhetorical question about Vietnam – “How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?” – and applies it to the current forever wars. It might be the weakest track on a very strong album, feeling a little preachy for a performer who tends to avoid that, but even “Last to Die” has its moments. The accusation that “we don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn anymore / We just stack the bodies outside the door” is potent enough in its imagery to get beyond the soapbox. 

None of this is to say that Magic is a polemic against life under Bush any more than Born in the USA was a jeremiad against Ronald Reagan. Those elements are there because Springsteen has always sung about the state of the nation (see the anti-war “Lost in the Flood” from Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., for an early example). But they don’t overwhelm the record, and they don’t fix it in such a specific time and place that Magic can only be listened to as a historical document.  

Let’s consider “Livin’ in the Future”, a bouncy, ebullient number with big Max Weinberg drums and a blazing Clarence Clemons saxophone blast right up top. You can hear the smile through the lyrics – which, seemingly at odds with the happy, catchy music, mention kissing someone and tasting blood on their tongue. “Woke up Election Day”, Springsteen sings, “sky’s gunpowder and shades of gray.” And underneath these skies and the “dirty sun”, his character is whistling and trying hard to be oblivious. “We’re living in the future,” he sings, assuring us he can afford to be blasé about the world falling apart, “none of this has happened yet”. It’s about ignoring problems until it’s way too late, a thematic thread running through Springsteen’s entire catalog; you can hear it in “Racing in the Street”, “Meeting Across the River”, and “One Step Up”. It could be heard as a relationship song, and it wouldn’t be the first fun-sounding breakup song in Springsteen’s catalog (looking at you, “I’m Goin’ Down”), but maybe the “something righteous going under” is about something bigger. While we’re ignoring things, let’s forget that it’s the pistol’s chamber, not its barrel, that spins around.

“Gypsy Biker” is one of Magic’s straight-up rock songs in the vein of The Rising’s “Further on Up the Road”. These songs thrill in part because they highlight the enduring power of E Street Band. The band behind “Badlans” and “Ramrod” can still pull it out, updating their sound with a commanding tightness, all without feeling too slick, too polished. This is a little ironic, considering the way Magic was crafted. Springsteen recorded the heart of the album with drummer Max Weinberg, bassist Garry Tallent, and pianist Roy Bittan. Then he and producer Brendan O’Brien would enlist other band members to overdub their parts. This method of recording – necessitated, in part, because of the group members’ schedules – was met with some criticism by the Springsteen fan community, who had either forgotten or ignored the fact that this had been the method with which Springsteen had recorded not only The Rising but also Born to Run.  

At the heart of “Gypsy Biker” is the same thing at the heart of so much of Nebraska and Born in the USA, of The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust – growing disillusioned by the failure of the systems you once trusted. We quickly glean that the “gypsy biker” at the heart of the song is coming home from some unspecified war; what we don’t realize right off is that he’s coming home in a box. In Springsteen’s earlier B-side, “Shut Out the Light”, we see how difficult it is for a veteran to return home after the horrors of war. Here, we’re seeing how impossible it is for the people left behind, especially when dealing with the death of someone who died for no reason. “Speculators made their money,” Springsteen sings, “on the blood you shed.” War profiteering is a hell of a business, and the greed of it trickles down to people who are forced to reckon with the human cost. The vague devastation of a line like, “you asked me that question, I didn’t get it right”, underscores how few solutions we have in this situation and how helpless the condition itself can be. It’s the vet in “Born in the USA” who can’t get a straight answer from his VA man; it’s the soldier in “Devils & Dust” who suddenly doesn’t know who to trust; it’s the cop in “41 Shots” who was betrayed by his own biases and killed an unarmed man. These are systemic issues that Springsteen is bringing to the surface but also allowing us to sing along to.  

I need to really push that last point: none of this (with the possible exception of “Last to Die”) is a slog. All of it is exciting music, the band deliberately leaning into its best self, sometimes highlighting and sometimes juxtaposing the lyrics and singing. The second half of Magic ramps up this musicality, bringing us into pop-music territory Springsteen hadn’t touched since “Dancing in the Dark” and “Cover Me,” and maybe not even them. “Girls in their Summer Clothes” is a deliberate throwback to wall-of-sound 1960s pop music, part Del Shannon, part Beach Boys, part Ronettes. It’s one of Springsteen’s best-ever tracks, melodic and melancholic in equal measure, with one of those key changes on the bridge that shamelessly manipulate your emotions.

Our narrator, Bill, is a lonely man wandering through his hometown at dusk, where life is going on despite his broken heart. He sits at the counter at Frankie’s Diner (the neon sign like “a cross over the lost and found”), and as waitress Shaniqua pours his coffee, he pours his heart out to her. “She went away / She cut me like a knife / Hello, beautiful thing / Maybe you can save my life.” It’s putting a lot on Shaniqua, but she did ask, “penny for your thoughts, my boy Bill”. The flirting is somehow gorgeous in its fleeting desperation. Bill’s sadness is romantic in the same way the optimism in “Prove It All Night” is romantic, the way the freedom of release in “Out in the Street” is romantic. These emotions are over the top, and it’s frankly thrilling to see that the realities of love Springsteen explored in Tunnel of Love, Human Touch, and Lucky Town can’t quite quell that soulful heart, carrying over from youth to adulthood in a way that doesn’t feel forced or out of touch. It’s terrible and beautiful how he knows the girls in their summer clothes will pass him by.  

It’s a perfect pop song, a glittering jewel in Springsteen’s catalog. It might have been lightning in a bottle, though. When Springsteen attempted to replicate its success with Working on a Dream by crafting an entire record of 1960s-style pop and rock sounds, the result was a resounding critical and popular failure. Audiences were not won over by his epic “Outlaw Pete”, a multi-part epic whose claim to infamy was its fantasias on KISS’ “I Was Made for Loving You”, and downright hated “Queen of the Supermarket”, a “Summer Clothes”-esque song whose lyrics felt too silly and lightweight to justify the lush music. Springsteen’s forays into Beatles-style whimsy with “Surprise Surprise”, Nashville Skyline-era Dylan with “Tomorrow Never Knows”, or the Jefferson Starship pastiche “Life Itself” just didn’t seem to work for listeners, and arguments for Magic‘s success were hindered by the objectively bad title track. No matter how terrific much of Working on a Dream was (and quite a lot of it was, though it didn’t deserve the five stars Rolling Stone infamously gave it), none of it could measure up to the joyful, easy pop of “Girls in Their Summer Clothes”.  

Pop and rock don’t have to carry the weight of messaging to be good or even great. So much of what makes good pop music work is its accessibility and malleability, in how it can move you or engage you without necessarily challenging you too much. There’s a trio of songs on Magic – “You’ll Be Coming Down”, “Your Own Worst Enemy”, and “I’ll Work for Your Love” – that help shore up the sides of the heavier tracks, not lightweight by themselves but content not to compete for importance among a record of insanely heavy hitters. They’re to this album what “Night” was to Born to Run, what “Local Hero” was to Lucky Town, what “Darlington County” is to Born in the USA. “You’ll Be Coming Down” follows directly after the kickoff of “Radio Nowhere”, and it also starts with that heavy guitar before launching into its mid-tempo takedown. Springsteen’s painting with a lot of literal colors here, starting with “White roses and misty blue eyes / Red mornings and nothing but gray skies.” Later on, those skies turn both dusky blue and candy-apple green as Springsteen’s narrator throws hardcore shade: “You’ll be fine long as your pretty face holds out / Then it’s gonna get pretty cold out.” It’s a little twisted and dark, mean in a way that Springsteen characters usually aren’t. It fits the suppressed anger bubbling beneath the surface of the album. 

On the flip side is “I’ll Work for Your Love”, which follows “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” as another shiny pop confection. It’s a love-and-lust song utilizing religious imagery – “I watch the bones in your back like the stations of the cross” is the best one – but it’s all lightweight, deification for its own sake. “Leap of Faith” from Lucky Town used clumsier metaphors but maybe made for a deeper song. Still, there’s nothing wrong with a tune about a guy at a bar putting his bartender on a pedestal, and there are a lot worse sentiments than the promise of the title.  

The last of this trio, “Your Own Worst Enemy”, very nearly allies itself with the sharper political tracks on the album. As with “Livin’ in the Future”, it’s about avoiding danger at all costs: “the times, they got too clear / So you removed all the mirrors.” It’s a song about being cornered by your own bad decisions and pretending everything’s fine. It’s endlessly interpretable, which is to its credit. Who is this terrible person Springsteen is singing to? Could it be about Bush himself? The only real clue is in the song’s final line, one of Magic’s most intense: “Your flag, it flew so high / It drifted into the sky.” Remember, this was the era of Freedom Fries, “God Bless the USA”, and other acts of performative patriotism. How much fealty can someone pay to the country and the government before logic and culpability go off the rails? What happens when “these colors don’t run” just up and disappear?  

There might be answers in the one-two punch of Magic‘s closing tracks (I do not include the bonus postscript elegy “Terry’s Song” here, as it was added at the last minute and doesn’t fit into the themes of the record. Springsteen would tackle the themes of death and grief more adeptly with Working on a Dream’s “The Last Carnival” and Letter to You’s “Ghosts” and “Last Man Standing”.) Magic’s penultimate track, “Long Walk Home”, is among his very best anthems, instantly iconic, leading us in with a plaintive electric guitar over a more contemplative acoustic and a shuffling beat. Springsteen wastes no time with setup, immediately unveiling this song’s tone and intent: “Last night I stood at your doorstep, trying to figure out what went wrong.” At once uneasy, both the singer and the listener navigate the first chorus without further accompaniment. The title of the track surfaces as a warning, as a weary lament: “don’t wait up for me, it’s gonna be a long walk home.” Then the rest of the band kicks in, and the song reveals itself more. It’s “My Hometown” over two decades later, but now it’s not the empty shopfront windows and vacant factories that have us uneasy. It’s the people you grew up with, the folks you thought you knew best in the world, now seeming like “rank strangers”. It’s the alienation inside your safety net, a hard, demoralizing truth that has only grown more oppressive in the years since.  

There’s room for interpretation, as there (maybe hilariously) was on the song “Born in the USA”, as there would later be on Wrecking Ball’s “We Take Care of Our Own” (is that a sarcastic jab or a rallying cry of unity?) But as Springsteen’s narrator takes us through a town where he was born, one not so different from the magic-kissed streets of “Girls in Their Summer Clothes”, we grow wary of toxic nostalgia. Sure, the grocery store and the barbershop are still around, but that Veterans Hall is empty — maybe because, like the kid in “Gypsy Biker”, they’re not coming home alive — and the diner is closed for good, the sign on the door just reading “Gone”.

The most evocative image is one that has been entwined with Springsteen’s image since 1984, the American flag. After a tricky verse about the power of community – is it supportive or oppressive – Springsteen evokes the flag flying over the courthouse, the symbol of what his hometown represents. “Who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t.” One could easily take that as boosterism, but let’s look back at that empty Veterans Hall, the diner, and the eyes of the strangers you thought were your friends. In the context of “Long Walk Home”, that last line before the final chorus is chilling. It seems that who we are is in question, what we’ll do is dangerous, and what we won’t is horrifying.  

It all leads to “Devil’s Arcade”, Magic’s closing track. It’s the other side of “Gypsy Biker”, about a vet who actually comes home plagued with PTSD and a complete inability to reintegrate. As Springsteen quietly, almost radically, started doing with The Rising, he uses a female narrator here, trying desperately to cope with her lover’s irreparable damage. The imagery here is almost unbearably powerful as she copes with his sexual dysfunction (the frankness of “the lost smell on your breath as I helped you get it in” is hellish), his disillusionment with the concept of heroism, and of course, the nightmares, where he wakes with “the thick desert dust on your skin”.

In the song’s denouement, Springsteen repeats “the beat of your heart” over and over as if trying to understand why that beating is still happening (punctuated only once by the variation “the beat of her heart” – because you recognize, distantly, that she’s trying to help you, even if you can’t accept it). The band builds, guitars and drums and Soozie Tyrell’s lonesome violin crashing together in a swelling coda, only for Max Weinberg’s drums to exemplify that beating heart at the very end. The last sound we hear on Magic is the punctuation of a final cymbal crash. In an album racked with doubt, loneliness, and unease, it’s one of the few definitive statements. 

Magic was well-received when it was first released. Yes, it won the coveted five stars from Rolling Stone, but so did the somewhat uneven Working on a Dream. But it won scores of other critical notices, as well, placing in the top ten of the Village Voice’s annual “Pazz & Jop” critics poll garnering stars and high letter grades nearly across the board. It was popular, too, not only debuting at #1 on the Billboard chart but also returning there once it was bumped down. Magic eventually hit platinum sales, at current the last Springsteen album to do so.  

One of the only major complaints was about the production. Since digital was introduced, some producers and labels had been trying to “punch up” the sound of their artists by making them as loud as possible, pushing past nuance to rattle eardrums and, in theory, stand out among a morass of quieter-sounding records. The resulting “loudness war” was something of a net loss for listeners, who may not have wanted ear-bleedingly loud music, whose exceedingly high compression rates could lead to audio distortion and a somewhat muddled listening experience. Magic was a victim of the loudness war. If it’s not apparent while listening to the album, try putting it in a mix with older Springsteen records. Going from the somewhat quiet mix of The River to the brain-shattering loudness of Magic is jarring as hell, and one hopes that a new mix is somewhere in Magic’s future. 

Despite that, Magic stands as one of Springsteen’s very best albums, building on themes and sounds he and the E Street Band have been exploring since Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. I think it’s somewhat lost in the shuffle nowadays, in the shadow of the totemic The Rising and obscured by the more experimental Working on a Dream and High Hopes, the oddly mixed reaction to Wrecking Ball, the out-of-nowhere high of Western Stars, and the pandemic-era E Street gift of Letter to You. Magic had a lot to say and said it very well, but because it wasn’t a concept album or one of Springsteen’s departures, its importance can be somewhat underestimated. There’s something to be said about a rock band playing at the top of its form, supported by a singer-songwriter whose way with words is similarly at a career peak. In an intimidating canon marked by ambition and drive and perfectionism, Magic stands shoulder to shoulder with Springsteen’s acknowledged classics, a remarkable late-career achievement he may never top again.   

Kevin Quigley is the author of the novels Meatball Express, I’m on Fire, and Roller Disco Saturday Night, as well as the short story collections Damage & Dread and This Terrestrial Hell. His stories have appeared in the Cemetery Dance anthologies Halloween Carnival and Shivers, the bestselling Shining in the Dark anthology, the thriller collection Death of a Bad Neighbour, and Lawrence Block’s upcoming Playing Games. He has also contributed essays to Stephen Spignesi’s Elton John: Fifty Years On and Andy Rausch’s Pulp Cinema: Essays on the Films of Quentin Tarantino.

Quigley is also known for his monographic work on Stephen King (The Stephen King Illustrated Movie Trivia Book, Chart of Darkness, Stephen King Limited). His latest nonfiction books include New England Tiki, a look at the Polynesian pop phenomenon in the Atlantic northeast, and The Sound Sent Shivers Down My Back, a deep exploration into the Oregon folk-rock band Blitzen Trapper, and their seminal album, Furr. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts with his husband, Shawn.