One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (A Eulogy for the E Street Sound)
When it comes to his work with the E Street Band, Springsteen seems to have tempered or even jettisoned other songwriting trademarks, such as the sense of place that informed so many of his songs.
There's a time when that narrative has to be broken because you've run out of freedom in it. You've run out of places to go.
-- Bruce Springsteen, to 60 Minutes
Bruce Springsteen's latest record, Magic, is only his second full-length record with the E Street Band since 1984. It's the kind of news that gets most Springsteen fans pretty excited. To many, the E Street Sound represents Springsteen's glory days, when he came blasting out of New Jersey with a sound that was equal parts garage rock and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. As rock sounds go, it's distinctive and legendary, the bedrock for the lion's share of Springsteen classics.
It's also a sound that's a far cry from much of Springsteen's recent work. With the exception of the joyous We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, much of Springsteen's later work has exhibited a serious and somber tone that resists any and all attempts to sing along. The E Street Band, though, brings its own stadium-filling expectations: the lyrics might still address blue-collar woes, lost loves, found loves that didn’t pan out, and lives chafing against stasis, but at least you can pump your fist to it.
Magic meets many expectations head on with "Radio Nowhere", a guitar-driven rant about the radio void that finds the E Street Band sounding rejuvenated, and even a little updated for the current day (despite a riff that many have pointed out bears a passing resemblance to Tommy Tutone's "867-5309/Jenny"). It's the perfect lead-in for a record that the media immediately hailed as Springsteen's return to form.
There have been talk show appearances, a 60 Minutes segment, an Amazon.com "Springsteen Store", blog posts and reviews far and wide raving about the record's vitality, the cover of Spin magazine, and even spawned-in-Hell's-own-marketing-meeting synergy between "Radio Nowhere" and the 2007 World Series. (A note to whoever's in charge of that sort of thing: tons of artists have songs that actually relate to baseball, from Chuck Brodsky to John Fogerty to, hell, even Meat Loaf. Even more songs hold some tenuous thematic connection to what's actually happening on the field.). To top it all off, Magic scored a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album, while "Radio Nowhere" made the short list for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance and Best Rock Song.
Admittedly, "Radio Nowhere"'s a catchy, radio-friendly track, and it's hard to argue with the "I just wanna hear some rhythm" chorus. Problem is, despite Springsteen's contention that the song's setting is post-apocalyptic, when there's really nothing left on the radio but static, what he takes three minutes to say in "Radio Nowhere" was covered more succinctly when he closed 1982's "Open All Night" with, "Radio's jammed up with gospel stations / Lost souls callin' long distance salvation / Hey, mister deejay, wontcha hear my last prayer hey, ho, rock 'n' roll, deliver me from nowhere". Even a minor line like "sun's just a red ball risin' over them refinery towers" sounded like he was navigating some parched no-man's land. If you were to hear "Radio Nowhere" before you ever heard "Open All Night", it'd be like reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road and thinking it can't get any more visceral, until you go and get yourself scarred by the scalp-littered, "cauterized wasteland" of Blood Meridian.
The difference between those two songs also underscores one of Magic's biggest problems. Well, the biggest problem is that a lot of it sounds generic. Only one cut, "Livin' in the Future", for all the hoopla about an E Street Band reunion, actually sounds like a classic E Street Band song. The rest is an attempt, aided and abetted by Brendan O'Brien's big-'90s-rock production, to update the sound, and that just might not be workable, tied as the E Street Sound is to some mythical rock 'n' roll paradise of big engines, wide lanes, and dreams waxing and waning.
Ironically, Magic's two most effective tracks ditch the album's template. The muted title track actually recalls Springsteen's low-profile work on "Streets of Philadelphia" and the underrated Tunnel of Love disc even as it sounds like promising new territory. The hidden bonus track, "Terry's Song", a plainspoken eulogy for Springsteen's assistant and friend Terry Magovern, finds a mournful Springsteen singing from the heart when he imagines his friend has "gone into that dark ether where you're still young and hard and cold". Past those uncharacteristic high points, Magic isn't all that good. If he'd been playing some of these songs when he started his career, Springsteen might never have gotten out of the Stone Pony.
But past the sonic shortcomings, Magic suffers from the very lyrical ambiguity that's garnered so much praise. In "Open All Night", Springsteen sang about something mundane -- just trying to get to his baby -- and left the listener enough room to see anything else they wanted. In the case of "Radio Nowhere", his ambitions for the song's true meaning are obscured by lyrics that don't bring it home. So the listener is likely to only hear something mundane: the tale of a guy being bored by the radio. In these days of consolidated behemoths like Clear Channel, that's actually not a bad message, but it might not be all that Springsteen intends.
Throughout Magic, Springsteen repeats "Radio Nowhere"'s basic approach: go for the rock gusto and cut the lyrical corners. That's not to say that Springsteen's writing throwaway lyrics. Check Magic's lyrics and they're surprisingly sophisticated for a bunch of arena-ready rock songs. However, when you place it up against his non-E Street output, you see a marked difference in the level of detail and breadth of subject matter.
Don't get me wrong. This trashing of Magic isn't some screed about Springsteen losing it, or that Springsteen should hang it up. Rather, it's an attempt to work through what's obviously a conscious attempt by Springsteen to forge a solo identity out of a certain style of song, and to fill the stadiums with another type of song. Springsteen isn't a victim of age or multi-millionaire complacency. Rather, he's made calculated decisions about where he allows his muse to take him at a given time. An unfortunate casualty, though, seems to be the E Street Band.
This is probably the last time we'll see the band's full incarnation, due to health problems like 65-year-old Clarence Clemons' hip replacement and Danny Federici's melanoma. And it might be for the best that the band gets one final swan song, because they're not getting Springsteen's best material, anymore. It's hard to even say how much of a reunion Magic really is, as the band members were reportedly flown in on weekends to record their parts. So a tour to mix the new with the old, lucrative as it may be, carries a bittersweet taste.
Regarding Springsteen's newer material, it's safe to say that he's not the Springsteen who emerged with 1973’s hyper-verbal, Dylan-influenced Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.. Even if age isn't slowing Springsteen down, he was still a very different man back then. As songwriters grow older, they seem to rely less on vibrant detail. Perhaps a young songwriter feels compelled to capture even the smallest details, not having gained enough life experience to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Of course, this holds the potential for all sorts of unexpected gems. No one but a youngster would be audacious enough to pen, much less pull off, mini-epics like "Jungleland" or "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)". A song like "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" is as much a detail-rich ode to (and last rite for) a Garden of Jersey Delights where "the boys from the casino dance with their shirts open like Latin lovers on the shore / Chasin' all them silly New York virgins by the score" as it is a plea for Sandy's attention.
Older songwriters, on the other hand, have seen it all, long ago realizing that everyone everywhere is having pretty much the same conversation, doing the same things, and seeing things the same way. So no need to get bogged down in the details. Consequently, Springsteen's newest E Street material finds him trying to merge his love for detail into universal themes.
Magic's "Gypsy Biker", for example, traffics in lines like, "the speculators made their money / On the blood you shed / Your mama's pulled / The sheets off your bed / The profiteers on Jane Street / Sold your shoes and clothes". Presumably, the song's subject is a casualty of the war in Iraq, whose body has yet to arrive home. It's not so important that Springsteen never names the war, however; the human cost of war's pretty much an accepted constant.
However, in dividing his time between themes like family loss, the profits of others (both on a large Halliburton-style scale and on a small local level), and a parade of the righteous, Springsteen fails to nail down any of them. "Gypsy Biker" is certainly poetic, but it never captures its themes with the power of more focused songs such as Tom Waits's "Soldier's Things", Jason Isbell's "Dress Blues", or even Springsteen's own "Jesus Was an Only Son".
So you can't completely discount age, at least not in the sense that priorities and interests change with time. After 1984's Born in the USA thrust Springsteen into the spotlight, he was easing up on the age of 40, with nothing else to prove in terms of bombastic rock 'n' roll. Since then, he's seemingly been interested in following more esoteric paths (which shouldn't be a surprise since he showed his contrarian streak by following the landmark The River with the stark chart-poison of Nebraska).
Born in the USA's bombast was followed by 1987's subdued, divorce-informed Tunnel of Love. After that, all bets were off, with Springsteen's simultaneous release of Human Touch and Lucky Town in 1992. 1995 saw Springsteen rediscovering his inner Woodie Guthrie on The Ghost of Tom Joad; a decade later, he walked equally bleak ground on 2005's Devils and Dust. In that span, apart from some reunion cuts for 1995's Greatest Hits, the only time Springsteen and the E Street Band came together in the studio was for 2002's The Rising.
Through it all, many Springsteen fans bided their time, sustained by the occasional scraps of E Street reunion. On discs like The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust, Springsteen was as lyrically powerful as ever, but those records required active listening; there was no getting swept away in a grim tale like "Devils and Dust" or "Sinaloa Cowboys" (which Cracker, of all people, later revealed to be a hidden slice of widescreen Springsteen). But there were places Springsteen wanted to go, places where he didn't feel the E Street band fit, even though some of those records -- like the spirited but uneven Human Touch / Lucky Town tandem -- were rock records.
As he's explored these different avenues, Springsteen's shown a knack for compartmentalizing his work, especially when it comes to his work with the E Street Band. Granted, there have been exceptions like "41 Shots (American Skin)", which directly addressed the controversial death of Amadou Diallo at the hands of New York City police. But by and large, the exquisite storytelling increasingly went to somber records like The Ghost of Tom Joad or Devils and Dust.
Conversely, his true E Street discs are the raucous, partyin' Springsteen. Witness The Rising, Springsteen's empathetic response to the empty spaces of the heart left by September 11th. The word on The Rising was that it was a salve, a way to heal the soul, a way to reconnect with humanity (Springsteen's shows in support of the record certainly found him ratcheting up his rock 'n' roll testifyin' to levels unusual even for him). Lost in the shuffle, though, was that The Rising was a record of broad, quick strokes, with little of the detail that makes a Springsteen record useful to the more-than-casual fan.
The Rising's emphasis on faith and steadfastness in the face of adversity found Springsteen relying on communal choruses on many songs, although evocative moments sometimes shone through, such as this snippet from the title track:
In the garden of a thousand sighs
There's holy pictures of our children
Dancin' in a sky filled with light
There are even some fine lines on Magic, such as "Pour me a drink Theresa / In one of those glasses you dust off / And I'll watch the bones in your back / Like the Stations of the Cross" ("I'll Work for Your Love"), or this recognition of domestic clouds amidst the larger anti-war sentiment of "The Last to Die":
Kids asleep in the backseat
We're just counting the miles, you and me
We don't measure the blood
We've drawn anymore
We just stack the bodies outside the door.
However, they don't hold a candle to some of the rich imagery from solo Springsteen efforts like Joad's "Youngstown":
Well my daddy worked the furnaces
Kept 'em hotter than hell
I come home from 'Nam worked my way to scarfer
A job that'd suit the devil as well
Taconite, coke and limestone
Fed my children and made my pay
Them smokestacks reachin' like the arms of God
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay
When it comes to his work with the E Street Band, Springsteen seems to have tempered or even jettisoned other songwriting trademarks, such as the sense of place that informed so many of his songs. Even if you disregard colorful characters like Crazy Janie, the Magic Rat, and the Mission Man -- and even if you get past the litany of girls' names from Kitty to Candy to multiple Marys -- Springsteen's early songs set you squarely in a new world. It's not even necessarily New Jersey, but maybe any industrial town or open highway or beach by the reservoir in your own experience or imagination.
Take, for instance, "Jungleland"'s evocation of ""barefoot girls sitting on the hood of a Dodge / drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain." That's practically a haiku, a line brimming with youth and vitality. By contrast, Magic's "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" views that same sort of scene through the prism of invisible-to-girls middle age, with nowhere the effect.
What might be the trickiest theory to put forth might be to say that the E Street Springsteen writes almost exclusively in a generic first person now. Granted, classics like "The River", "Thunder Road", "Meeting Across the River", "Hungry Heart", and "Born in the USA" (and even the above-referenced "Youngstown") are in first person, but they also feel like they're tales told by personas. Most of Nebraska, with songs from the perspective of killer Charlie Starkweather, state trooper Joe Roberts, and Roberts's fugitive brother, among others, relies on this approach. So even when Springsteen wrote in first person, it was with the distance of a persona with a backstory, a kind of implied third person.
On Magic though, Springsteen's songs are addressed to a vague "you" from a narrator of equally vague identity. In some cases, it feels like Springsteen’s just putting opinion to paper, with little of the evocative backstory on which he once relied.
Springsteen’s transition seems to occur somewhere in the ’82-’87 span that produced Nebraska, Born in the USA, and Tunnel of Love. Nebraska remains Springsteen’s high-water mark for putting himself in the heads of his characters, while Born in the USA may have been his last stab at storytelling in a rock 'n' roll context. By the time Springsteen produced Tunnel of Love, he was relying on his own recent experiences for lyrical content. Cars' engines weren't turning, houses were haunted, rooms were full of shadows, loved ones wore brilliant disguises, and it wasn’t hard to draw a bee-line between Springsteen’s lyrics and his own marital troubles. Whether Springsteen saw new veins to be mined from personal experience, or if he just felt it was the mature songwriting thing to do, he pretty much resigned future persona-driven first-person tales and third-person narratives for the "folk" discs.
Springsteen's currently enjoying a much-deserved renaissance among younger performers who suddenly seem willing to acknowledge his legacy. The Arcade Fire cribbed heavily from his sound for Neon Bible, a recent benefit show in Athens, GA, found artists playing his songs for charity, Josh Ritter often performs "The River", and everyone and their brother seems ready to admit his influence. Not bad for an artist who at one point inspired debates about his relevance.
Magic is an album that addresses the times we live in, which is what we expect from Springsteen no matter what approach he's taking with his music. Arguably, though, Springsteen's perception of what constitutes an E Street Band song may get in the way of Magic attaining its true potential, as detail gives way to choruses.