Trying To Get To You

Monday, September 24, 2007

Bruce Springsteen's Magic: A Deeper Shade Of Soul Review

“The great romantic makes an album about working-class defeat – and, leaving most of his innocence hanging in the air, comes away ready for a long, uncertain fight against cynicism.” – Greil Marcus on Darkness on the Edge of Town, from Stranded, 1979.

“Better ask questions before you shoot/Deceit and betrayal’s bitter fruit” – Bruce Springsteen, “Lonesome Day” (2002)

Bruce Springsteen looks like a weary man on the cover of Magic, his new album with the E Street Band. But there’s also a look of defiance in his eyes, and it seems as though it’s defiance that Springsteen has tapped into to make Magic his best album in twenty years, a luminous and often gorgeous collection of songs, that typical of Springsteen, are filled with a sense of defeat, alienation, dread, anger and the residue of betrayals both personal and political, while also conveying a spirit of steely determination to carry on regardless.

Given the events of these past few years, it would be impossible to expect Springsteen not to have experienced both weariness and a deep sense of defeat. The Iraq war, which Springsteen publicly opposed from the stage months before Bush gave the orders to invade (Introducing “Born In The U.S.A. in the fall of 2002, he occasionally said, “I don’t want to have to write this song again.”), has entangled this country into a quagmire with no end in sight, with unimaginable costs of blood and treasure. And Springsteen no doubt remembers that it is a war that at its outset, a huge majority of the country supported (most notably Congress and the mainstream media) with little or no hesitation or qualification. Springsteen’s endorsement and campaigning for John Kerry in 2004 on the Vote For Change tour failed in its intention to remove the president - “You voted and you didn’t change,” was how Springsteen explained it at a Devils & Dust performance in Cleveland in the spring of 2005. And Springsteen’s 2006 tour with the Seeger Sessions band played to half empty arenas in several U.S. cities, despite the shows featuring some of the most enervating music of the man’s life, possibly calling into question for Springsteen the relationship between he and his fans.

Springsteen has always sought to create consensus through his music – he is a uniter, bringing together multitudes of people who on the surface, have little in common other than a reaction to his music. But the divide between his ideals of America and the reality of America in 2007 feels more like a chasm. And so to attempt to bridge that enormous divide he is back with the band, and while a cynic might say that he needs them commercially, what seems more likely is that he needs them personally - to combat his own sense of isolation by once again reconvening the best community he’s known and seeing what possibilities can be created by bringing it face to face with an audience.

Magic succeeds brilliantly because for the first time since perhaps Born In The U.S.A., Springsteen has paid as much attention to the melodies, hooks and sounds on the album as he has to the lyrics. Several of the songs – “Livin’ In The Future,” “Girls In Their Summer Clothes,” “You’ll Be Coming Down” and “I’ll Work For Your Love” are simply the some of the most enjoyable sounding songs Springsteen has ever recorded, downright gorgeous in both their melodies and arrangements. Producer Brendan O’Brien continues to create an updated version of the E Street sound – Roy Bittan’s piano shines as does Danny Federici’s organ and glockenspiel - but as on The Rising, the guitars are up front leading the band, sounding vaguely reminiscent of the 60’s British Invasion bands that Springsteen grew up listening to (and that Steven Van Zandt continues to lionize on his radio show). Clarence Clemons’ solos sometimes feel somewhat less than essential, but when they come in, like they do in “Livin’ In The Future” and "Long Walk Home," they occur as the sound of a beloved friend, one that you’re simply happy and grateful to know is still around. Garry Tallent’s bass is fluid as always and Max Weinberg’s drums, while still powerful, sound far lighter on their feet than they did on The Rising, which helps matters considerably.

Springsteen is universally and justifiably recognized as a great performer and lyricist, but he’s woefully underrated as a singer, and on Magic, his vocals shine. In the past fifteen years, Springsteen has substantially broadened the range of his voice, creating a myriad of options for his own phrasing, and on Magic, it seems like he utilizes them all. Whether singing plaintively or with a full-throated passion, Springsteen remains one of the few singers in popular music that has the ability to convey a multitude of emotional dimension within the same song, like in the mournful determination of “Long Walk Home,” the wistfulness of “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” and the humor and delight in the face of calamity of “Livin’ In The Future.”

The war in Iraq, while never addressed explicitly, can be felt all over the album. Springsteen, never interested in ideology or polemics, instead delves into the cost of the war in human terms – of death, sorrow, anger and cynicism. “Last To Die,” an angry lament, quotes the young John Kerry’s testimony during Vietnam (“How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?”) and asks the question anew, while making his statement about our current leadership: “The wise men were all fools.” “Magic” occurs as both prophecy and warning: “Now there’s a fire down below/That is coming up here/So leave everything you know/Carry only what you fear/On the road the sun is sinking low/Bodies hanging in the trees/This is what will be.” And in “Devils Arcade,” the most explicitly “Iraq” song on the album, Springsteen looks at it with a heartbroken eye: “You said heroes are needed, so heroes get made/Somebody made a bet, somebody paid/The cool desert morning then nothin' to save/Just metal and plastic where your body caved.”

Magic is not a flawless album. “Radio Nowhere,” the album’s opener and first single, is a less than thrilling rocker, and on occasion, the album feels a little too glossy, missing the grittiness that is a hallmark of some of Springsteen finest work. But these are minor quibbles.

Magic is an album that ranks among Springsteen’s greatest music – and whether you listen to it for fun or hunker down with the lyrics and pore over every detail, what emerges is both the brilliance and commitment of an artist who continues to grow musically and emotionally; an artist whose values remain intact and who continues to fight the good fight - even in the face of these badlands.

Buy Magic at Amazon

23 comments:

gregg chadwick said...

Ben,

An honest, insightful review of an important album. Thanks for getting the word out.

Jon Ford said...

Very nice write-up. The reviews that lend more texture to the music and more insight into the artist are much missed.

I hold the period of 1978-1983 as Bruce's most compelling creative time for rock music. Thanks to "Magic," I can now say that additional compelling rock also came out in 2007. I too have quibbles (production issues in particular, sorry Brendan), but they are just quibbles.

It's been a long time since I listened to a boss studio album and fantasized about how it would sound live. I can already hear "Gypsy Biker" seguing perfectly into "Prove it All Night," with the two songs together combining to break guitar strings as the solos fly. May my dreams be realized. Until then let's not look a significant gift horse in the mouth. Thanks Bruce for a great album.

Anonymous said...

You obviously put a lot of effort into this, and it's perfectly readable, but I found it lacking somehow. Nice effort, though, even if you criminally underrated Radio Nowhere.

Ben Lazar said...

I don't know how it's possible to underrate "Radio Nowhere." IMO, that one really missed the mark. Dullsville. Hopefully it will cook live.

pq910 said...

Excellent review. I think the keyboards and (particularly) Tallent's bass really shine on this record. I like Radio Nowhere, but think it's one of the weaker tracks on the album. I'm not sure if it's the first track placement or the fact that it was released in advance of even the leak, but Radio Nowhere almost sounds like it's part of a different record to me.

I've also thought quite a bit about how this will play live, and I can absolutely picture "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" segueing into one of the grand epics (Backstreets or Incident particularly). Looking forward to the tour.

Silvio Van Zandt said...

Excellent review of an excellent album.

Many of those who have heard Magic have expressed disappointment, but this is an album that rewards significantly upon repeated listenings.

10 years from now, Magic will be regarded as being among the top tier of Springsteen efforts.

Brian said...

hey, Ben. Nice, insightful review. Really well thought out. I linked to you over at Small/Stupid, so you'll benefit from my dozen or so readers!

Peter Wenz said...

Excellent review, Ben - thanks a lot.
I will translate some of your thoughts and insights when posting the review on my (German) blog on Friday (with the fresh copy of 'Magic' in my hands...)

Bill said...

I simply do not understand reviews such as this, or the angst Bruce claims to have at the state of our nation. We live in a gloriously free nation, with virtually no unemployment, record levels of minority home ownership, the best health care in the world, and the freedom to do pretty much whatever we want. And Bruce has parlayed all of this into a considerable income, that he pads at every opportunity with exhorbitant ticket prices and Sony promotions. What the heck is he complaining about?

Anonymous said...

Best health care in the world ?? Are you serious ??

Bill said...

Without question, we have the best health care in the world. We have the best doctors and hospitals anywhere. Why do people come from all over the world to get treatment here? Do we have the best health care system in the world? Maybe not. But the health care is clearly superior to anyone else. And, I might add, Bruce can certainly afford it, thanks to the system he so willingly bashes. So, again, what is he complaining about?

pq910 said...

I must have missed the songs where Bruce "complained" about health care, minority home ownership or even the millions of (virtually nonexistent) unemployed on this album. Can you point those songs out to me?

Reginald said...

Just watched the Long Walk Home video on amazon -- sounds good, looks good. Can't wait to hear the rest.

Bill: Bruce could be in a post-adolescent state in which he is concerned for the welfare of others. And when 60% of his copious tax dollars are going toward 'defense' spending, he might realize and perhaps feel guilty for the indirect role he plays (also as a voter) in our misguided foreign policy.

Bill said...

Reginald: Your point is well taken, even if I disagree with the sentiment. My point is simply this. I get tired of extremely rich people telling me how bad things are. Bruce, as much as I love his music, is fleecing us with exhorbitant ticket prices, ridiculous tie in promotions, etc. He is making an astounding amount of money, yet spends much of his time telling me how bad things are in America. I just don't get it.

Jay said...

Exhorbitant ticket prices??? Are you crazy??? In an era of $300 Rolling Stone, Cher, Madonna, Eagles tickets it is incomprhensible for you to consider the $65 or $95 that all USA tickets cost for this tour to be even close to high. What planet are you on? Even todays tours by Genesis at $227 & Sheryl Crow at $200 orbit past the ESB prices. Come down to earth buddy.

Bill said...

Yeah, the poor guy is probably just scraping by. My apologies. Please.

Jay said...

Bill, you apparently don't want to accept that a zillionaire can actually have the perspective of the little guy, and I can agree that most zillionaires can't possibly grasp what it's like to be a little guy. However, I don't think there is any doubt among those who have actually met Bruce, his is really a regular guy and he does indeed sing and preach for the little guys.. but back to your suggestion that he is charging high prices, yiou could not be more off base. Also, while we may very well have a great country in many regards he feels it is unacceptable to imprison humans without charging them, he is opposed to torture and feels illegal wire taps are indeed illegal. I know this because he told us so, in his own words, Monday night in Asbury. His socio economic class, as high as it may be, does not mean he has no right to speak up about things that a deaf mute could tell are wrong. Perhaps the fact that we have such an amazing country makes it all the more wrong for us to violate rights when we all know better?

Anonymous said...

Bill, you're being ridiculous. So in other words Bruce should play for free because he is rich. Paul McCartney is richer. Should he pay us to see him live? (ok, don't answer that. Thanks to his recent solo work, he probably should, but you get my drift.)

Bruce Springsteen is charging less than 100 bucks for a 2 hour plus show of solid rock n roll. A BARGAIN in this offensive concert age!

Bill said...

Guys, don't get me wrong. I love Bruce. I love his passion and I love his music. However, the last time I saw him, I spent a considerable sum of money to listen to him rail against the capitalist system. While I may disagree with his politics, he is obviously entitled to his opinion, and I will fight to the death his right to speak out. It just strikes me as wrong to charge people a large sum of money to tell them it is wrong to make a large sum of money. So, enough said. I am looking forward to Tuesday as I may be the only person on the planet who hasn't heard the new album yet.

Ben Lazar said...

Bill,

Springsteen isn't railing against the capitalist system. Springsteen is a capitalist who likes his money, and isn't ashamed of it (at least anymore). What's he's railing about is that this country has abandoned its laws and its ideals in the name of the "war on terror."

Chuck said...

So I thought I was listening to a great new CD, then I was a little sad cause it was over, then the best song on the CD starts up. Broke the Mold, indeed, you got that right, Bruce!!

weirdcritter said...

Probably the best review of Magic that I've read. Nice job.

Steve said...

I was at the Cleveland show, and as much as convienent as it may be otherwise, Springsteen did not address Cleveland as "you voted," he said "we voted." It was clearly not a reflection of being in Ohio.

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