I'm sure you can look anywhere this week and find a major publication reviewing the new Bruce Springsteen album, "Magic". A.O. Scott wrote an excellent article for the NY Times last week and Ann Powers of the LA Times delivered a glowing review, too. My favorite quote so far comes from Chris Willman of Entertainment Weekly when he stated "If there's another ''Glory Days'' here — an inevitable concert standby that Bon Jovi will spend the next decade trying to rip off — it's ''Livin' in the Future,'' an insanely jubilant celebration of denial as a coping mechanism."
I decided to ramble for a few minutes about the new Springsteen record, as if I was talking to an old friend while pounding back beers in a local dive. Imagine, if you will, music blaring over the jukebox, the sound of pool balls cracking and glass mugs clanging as I shout out my opinion to you.
I was fortunate enough to receive an "advanced" copy of "Magic" two weeks ago, so I've had time to live with the music and grasp whatever lyrics I could wrap my brain around when I wasn't rocking out. Yes, this is a rock album. There are only 2 slow songs on the entire album (3 if you count the lovely bonus track). On top of that, this album is a return to the soundscapes that Springsteen mastered in the late 70's and early 80's. When I listen to the songs on "Magic", I am reminded of not only "The River" and "Born to Run", but also "Born in the USA", which, despite its weaker songs, is one of the great pop albums of the 80s'. And in the end, "Magic" is truly one of the great pop records of this year.
Springsteen has gone on record as saying he decide to return to pop music, after spending the past 20 years trying to create cohesive albums with a unifying sound, whether it was the countrified "Tunnel of Love", the slick "Human Touch, "The sparse "Tom Joad" record, or 2002's anthemic, weighty "The Rising." Actually, if you listen to "Magic" all the way through, I believe you'll find elements of every type of Springsteen "sound" on this record. For that reason, "Magic" reminds me a lot of Springsteen’s "Tracks" box set that came out in 1998. On those 4 cd's we saw a cornucopia of styles and songs that somehow didn't fit into the Boss' scope of things when he released his landmark records. It seems that finally releasing that music had an enormous effect on Springsteen. It seems that he listened to all of this "lost" music and wondered why "Loose Ends" or "Be True" were never properly release. He may have also wondered why the hell it took so long to make his LP's (something he seems to be making up for since 2002, when he has released nearly an album a year). From what I've read, "Magic" came together rather quickly. But make no mistake; this album is not loose, say, like "Lucky Town". Brenden O'Brien has once again expertly produced the songs (this being his third Springsteen record) and the musicianship is a joy to listen to.
Like "Born in the USA" did twenty four years ago, "Magic" begins with the driving, angry song, "Radio Nowhere", which lays the ground for the rest of "Magic". And like his landmark 1983 album, "Magic" appears to be a typical Springsteen record. But dig below the surface, and you find a lot of anger and darkness. But this should be no surprise for Springsteen aficionados. He has always hidden his message in the great hooks he creates. "Dancing in the Dark" may come of as a light, pop confection, but pay attention to the lyrics and you uncover a sad, depressing song. The same holds true for most of the songs on "Magic". Lovely arrangements are ear candy, but reading along with the lyrics, you see clearly that Springsteen is so happy go lucky. In fact, he's pissed. He's pissed at the Bush administration. He’s pissed that sons and daughters are getting killed in a war that shouldn't have happened in the first place. And he's pissed that the country that he loves and for which he has always held out hop seems to have lost its way.
I'll admit that upon first listen, I was a little taken aback at the music on "Magic". It felt like he was recycling his older music after spending the past three years exploring folk and gospel (on both the "Devils & Dust" cd and tour, and his triumphant "Seeger Sessions" album). But after two listens, the songs stuck in my head. I found myself walking around the house humming "Girls in their Summer Clothes" and discovered that I can't go a day without hearing "You'll Be Coming Down". In fact, the latter song may be one of my favorite Springsteen songs in years. The sound harkens to "The Rising", with chiming guitars and pitch perfect harmonies. During the second verse, the accompanying guitar incorporates the sort of echoed guitar effect that the Edge has mastered. Combined with Patti singing alongside her husband, it brings chills to my arms.
"Livin' In The Future" is already a favorite in our house, with it's poppy sax sound that not only reminds me of "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" and "Hungry Heart", but also the great Gary U.S. Bonds song, "Out of Work", that Bruce wrote for him.
Originally, I felt every song was great except the finale, “Devil’s Arcade”. However, after finally hearing the clean version of the song and getting to read along with the lyrics, I have changed my mid. “Devil’s Arcade” aches with the pain of every mother and father, sibling, lover or child who have lost someone in the Iraq War. And the music soldiers on… driving home this pain until everything slowly fades into nothing. “Devil’s Arcade” close out “Magic” in inspiring fashion.
As a bonus, Springsteen tacked on “Terry’s Song”, a plaintive elegy he wrote for his longtime friend who passed away in July. It is the perfect coda to yet another Springsteen masterpiece, and the best E Street Band record since “The River”.