REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/05/2007
Over the first 15 years of his remarkable career, Bruce Springsteen issued eight studio albums. Every one of these discs has stood the test of time; they are as vital and resonant today as on the day they first appeared. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for his output over the 20 years that have now elapsed since his last completely successful album, 1987’s somber, intense Tunnel Of Love.
Every artist needs to evolve to stay relevant, and Springsteen has worked hard at that – at times perhaps too hard. His post-Tunnel output is marked by albums that have moments of brilliance, but ultimately fall short of the musical and artistic heights achieved by classics like Born To Run or The River. They are largely albums that are of a moment, and are often effective at capturing that moment, but they simply don’t fare as well as his previous albums once the new-car scent has worn off. Darkness On The Edge Of Town is timeless music; Devils & Dust is not. Even The Rising, which in its moment felt like a major statement, has seen its luster fade over time.
All of which underscores what’s at stake with Magic -- the same question faced by any significant artist of a certain age -- is there another great album in there, or are we just playing out the string now? Magic makes the argument that there is -- the question is whether this is it, and the only way to answer that is with time.
Magic picks up the thematic threads of The Rising five years later, and the writer’s mood has not improved. Where The Rising sought to wring affirmation from the ashes of the
Opener “Radio Nowhere” sets the tone with one of the heaviest guitar attacks Springsteen has ever deployed, a wall of sound that, under Brendan O’Brien’s densely textured, echo-heavy production, achieves a kind of eerie thunder. The energy is fervent but dark; the lyric feels like Springsteen calling out his own audience, demanding that they quit being passive and start demanding better from everyone from corporate radio to their political leaders.
That dark, agitated undertone holds up through the entire album, even on the upbeat melodic numbers that dominate the first half. Steven Van Zandt’s harmony vocals and Clarence Clemons’ gorgeous sax work on “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” give it a strong “Classic Bruce” feel, but the lyric is a bitter monologue directed at someone whose pride is about to take a fall. “Livin’ In The Future” rides an effervescent r&b groove and gives every member of the band a moment to shine, but the lyric is another dark one, culminating in this pungent line: “My faith’s been torn asunder / tell me is that rollin’ thunder / Or just the sinkin’ sound of somethin’ righteous goin’ under?”
This line underscores the theme that comes into stronger and stronger focus over the course of the album, first emerging full-force in “Gypsy Biker.” This searing, magnificent rocker tells in rich detail the story of the devastated family left behind by a soldier who’s become a casualty of war -- a war that’s also divided his own small town. The lyric drips with a bitterness (“The favored march up over the hill / In some fools parade / Shoutin’ victory for the righteous / But there ain’t much here but graves”) that speaks as eloquently to the human cost of war as any I’ve ever heard. And the memorial the soldier’s fellow bikers hold for him in the foothills delivers an iconic image that I won’t spoil for you here.
At this point in the album Springsteen eases up momentarily, offering a pair of lighter moments in the rather Beach Boys-flavored “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” and the heartfelt entreaty “I’ll Work For Your Love.” But even this sunny pair is infused with undercurrents of regret, a certain wistfulness that you sense could easily congeal into anger.
The transition to the full flower of that anger happens under the restrained surface of the title track, a concise, sparsely arranged number that suggests through metaphor and allegory that we – the audience or the nation, which are often the same in Springsteen’s more political songs -- have fallen under the spell of a group of people who are the moral equivalent of sideshow tricksters. “Trust none of what you hear / And less of what you see” he warns, as “the freedom that you sought” turns ghostly and insubstantial, it leaves “bodies hangin’ in the trees.”
Lest any doubt remain about what Springsteen is getting at, he slams his point home with the roiling, furious “Last To Die.” Building from Lt. John Kerry’s statement before a 1971 U.S. Senate Committee hearing on the Vietnam War -- “How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?" -- Springsteen rails against the leaders who’ve steered the nation into a war he views as a monumental, tragic error.
The penultimate “Long Walk Home” draws many of these thematic threads together as a disillusioned narrator makes his way home to a small town that used to represent every core value he believed in, but has degenerated into a place and a people so emptied of spirit that he finds them nearly unrecognizable. Finally, the searing closer “Devil’s Arcade” lands you in the bed of a gravely wounded veteran dreaming of his buddies and grappling with the faith that’s been battered by his time in the titular arcade, whose earthly location seems obvious once you catch the references to “the cold desert morning” and “the thick desert dust on your skin.” Buoyed by a string section, at the finish the E Streeters launch this one right up into the stratosphere, falling back at the very end to leave only the haunting, halting heartbeat of Max Weinberg’s snare and cymbals. And then they stop, and the implied loss hits the listener like a sledgehammer.
Brendan O’Brien’s production and mixing can feel a bit intrusive, his sonic textures too dense in places for a band with as many players as the E Street unit, but he also buffs a sort of shimmering majesty out of these songs that suits Springsteen’s purposes well. As for the band itself, they’re all in strong form, though special kudos are due to Van Zandt and Patti Scialfa, whose harmonies consistently complement rather than distract from Springsteen’s lead vocals, and Clemons, who as usual makes the most of his chances to shine.
As with its predecessors, Magic will take some time to fully digest and appreciate in context. But sitting here today, less than a hundred hours into its official shelf life, it feels like a powerhouse -- a deadly serious album that still finds a moment to wink at you, a painstakingly crafted piece of art that’s still resolutely down to earth, and most of all, a shot straight from the gut of a man whose best moments have always been about letting go and letting it all out.