Review: Bruce Springsteen, MAGIC (released October 2, 2007)

By Robert Gillis

Published in the Boston City Paper

"Magic" by Bruce Springsteen Album, credit rollingstone.com and property of Bruce Springsteen
“Magic” by Bruce Springsteen Album, credit rollingstone.com and property of Bruce Springsteen

MAGIC is Bruce Springsteen’s new studio recording and his first with the E Street Band in five years. It’s a solid rock/pop offering; Springsteen has left the folksy styles of THE SEEGER SESSIONS and TOM JOAD behind (for now) and from the first notes it’s obvious this album is intended as a sequel to THE RISING — solid rock & roll, a sound throughout that makes you want to get up and dance (or jump up and shake your fist), and like RISING, deeply layered with commentary about current events.

This layering makes MAGIC arguably one of Springsteen’s best efforts, and what amazes me is that it is both familiar AND fresh. Many of the tracks feel like they could have been unreleased cuts from previous albums such as BORN IN THE USA, THE RIVER and BORN TO RUN; in fact, MAGIC not only uses classic lyrics from the older albums, but there are definite musical homages from JUNGLELAND and many others. This album is recognizably Springsteen but brand new.

Springsteen’s songwriting on MAGIC is infused with subtle (and sometimes obvious) outrage at what has happened to his beloved America in 2007. As the five-star review in Rolling Stone so eloquently stated, “[Springsteen] makes no direct references to Iraq, Bush or the so-called Patriot Act. He doesn’t need them.”

I’ve read reviews commenting about those references that Springsteen infused in MAGIC, but to be absolutely honest, the first two times I listened to the CD, I didn’t catch any of it. My friend David — also a Bruce fanatic — was incredulous I missed them, but on closer listen and careful reading of the lyrics, the message IS there, screaming at you. I usually “get” what Springsteen is saying in his music, but the first pass or two this time around, I missed it. Shame on me–MAGIC is layered with commentary about America 2007 — and Springsteen isn’t happy about what’s happened to his beloved country.

1. RADIO NOWHERE

With the Tommy Tutone-ish opening riff, the E-Street Band is back! “I was trying to find my way home … ” the song begins — a common theme in so much of Springsteen’s work.

“Is there anybody alive out there?” Is there any concert where Bruce hasn’t called out that very question? He’s looking for a connection. Classic Bruce. Sort of a follow-up to 57 CHANNELS (AND NOTHING ON), RADIO NOWHERE is a powerhouse anthem and an obvious indictment of the homogenized, generic wasteland of corporate driven contemporary radio. “I Just want to hear some rhythm / I want a thousand guitars / I want pounding drums.” Great to hear Clarence’s Saxophone. Awesome.

2. YOU’LL BE COMIN’ DOWN

This song has a distinctly 60s feeling to it, and Springsteen’s vocals are very, very good here — notable for the man who is arguably not the greatest singer (and I love the guy). A “she done him wrong” song? Sounds like it (except I wonder if the line about “crushed metal of your little flying machine” is a war reference)? The lines “You’ll be fine as long as your pretty face holds out / Then it’s gonna get pretty cold out” reminds me of the favorite TUNNEL OF LOVE track WHEN YOU’RE ALONE: “Now that pretty form that you’ve got baby / Will make sure you get along.” Smooth, smoldering vocals, great guitars. This is a track to play again and again and crank it on the car stereo — I LOVE this song.

3. LIVIN’ IN THE FUTURE

“My ship Liberty sailed away / on a bloody red horizon.” Another song that feels like an outtake from BITUSA — (or THE RIVER — definite nods to HUNGRY HEART here) — familiar, but fresh. Very powerful, and damned scary. As Springsteen explained on the TODAY SHOW on September 28: “So now, in the last six years, we’ve had to add to the American picture: rendition, illegal wiretapping, voter suppression, no habeas corpus, the neglect of our great city of New Orleans and her people, an attack on the Constitution, and the loss of our best young men and women in a tragic war. This is a song about things that shouldn’t happen here, happening here. And so right now we plan to do something about it, we plan to sing about it. I know it’s early, but it’s late…”

Springsteen talks about so many bad things happening to America in 2007, but don’t worry darling, none of this has happened yet, right? Right? Right?

4. YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY

This one should have been a B-Side. Not that B-Sides even exist anymore (or 45s, or ALBUMS, for that matter) but this one sounds and feels like something more suited for “TRACKS II” ten years from now. There’s an obvious allusion to the world before and after September 11, but the sound, the lyrics, the vocals … Nothing on this one is compelling to me. The song feels unfinished, a work in progress and sort of a throwaway. Reading the Magic tour’s set lists (as of November 13), Springsteen only played this one a few times. For me, it stalls the momentum built up so far.

5. GYPSY BIKER

One of the most powerful songs on this album. From the opening guitar and harmonica, you think “THE RIVER.” Haunting. Beautiful. And interestingly, if you are familiar with the Gordon Lightfoot classic, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” there are definite musical nods to that song’s sound as well.

The guitars on this song are scorching. The biker of the title is a dead soldier whose friends have gathered to mourn his passing. His belongings have been gathered and sold, but his friends take his bike out of the garage, polish it, and take it out into the desert and set it on fire — a funeral pyre, a ceremonial goodbye.

“You asked me that question, I didn’t get it right / You slipped into your darkness, now all that remains / Is my love for you brother, life’s still unchanged / To him that threw you away, you ain’t nothing but gone / My gypsy biker’s coming home”

Another indictment of the war: “The speculators made their money on the blood you shed” and another meaningless death, another faceless number — but not to this group of people. For his friends to ceremonially burn his cycle as they did, the “Gypsy Biker” must have been a hell of a guy. For me, the image is of a wild kid, a biker, a brother who becomes a straight-laced soldier and comes home in a coffin — the “fool’s parade” (a funeral with military honors)? I wonder if “counting white lines” at the end of the song references the endless white lines on the road, or the cemetery’s endless lines of white crosses? Powerful stuff!

6. GIRLS IN THEIR SUMMER CLOTHES

During the 1988 TOL tour, Bruce often mentioned, “The girls in their summer clothes,” and any male knows that girls in their summer clothes is one of the best parts of summer. This song has been said to have a “Beach Boys” feel to it, and that’s undeniable. And Springsteen’s descriptive, rich lyrics literally transport you to this summer evening in the neighborhood. You remember those summer nights: The bustle, the couples, the breeze, the street lights, the sights and sounds — they come alive here. Springsteen the storyteller has captured those days perfectly.

“Kid’s rubber ball smacks / off the gutter ‘neath the lamp light / big bank clock chimes / off go the sleepy front porch lights”< /p>

Springsteen’s voice is slightly echoed here and the effect works well; it almost feels like an outtake from BORN TO RUN (or DARKNESS)

And what a collection of nods to previous albums! “Frankie’s” diner, “Over on the edge of town,” “Tonight I’m gonna burn this town down” and more!

Yeah, the singer has lost his love (or is lamenting the halcyon days of his youth?) and the beautiful babes are passing him by (maybe he’s too old for them?) but this song is upbeat and romantic, painting a rich tapestry of a summer evening and its denizens. I think his comments about the girls passing him by are a little wistful, but not too sad. “Things been a little tight / But I know they’re gonna turn my way.” Yeah, he misses the old days (or the girl) but he’ll be OK. A GREAT song. Absolutely classic Springsteen; wish there were a few more of these on this album.

7. I”LL WORK FOR YOUR LOVE

The piano fades in … Is that JUNGLELAND? THUNDER ROAD? GROWING UP? Not even close. Unlike those unforgettable classics, this is a “cute” song packed with religious references to the point of absurdity. It’s very hard to take this one seriously, even if it’s supposed to be a “fun” song.

Springsteen has often drawn on his Catholic upbringing for his lyrics, often with great effect. “JESUS WAS AN ONLY SON” comes to mind as an example of the beauty that Springsteen is capable of when drawing on his Catholic memories. But I’LL WORK FOR YOUR LOVE trades substance for silly, and it’s not even “good” silly. With lines like, “Well tears they fill the rosary, at your feet my temple of bones” you wonder if this is an homage to the “over the top” lyrics of oldies like MARY, QUEEN of ARKANSAS, or if someone made a bet that Springsteen couldn’t get a dozen Catholic references into this short song. (For the record, he references eleven (by my count) symbols, not to mention that his girl’s name is Theresa). The lyrics are ultimately just silly and forgettable; the song is another “B-side” or “TRACKS II candidate.” Which is a shame, because when this one starts and you hear the piano, you were hoping for another, well, JUNGLELAND or something, and it’s not that at all.

8. MAGIC

Hypnotic. Compelling. Musically, feels like TUNNEL OF LOVE or TOM JOAD. And another song whose meaning is easily missed the first time around. On first listen, the title track almost sounds like a throwaway — seemingly telling the story of a magician performing simple, trite magic, the kind you might perform for your child: Make the coin disappear, guess the card, find a quarter in your ear. But this haunting song is deeply layered with a much more powerful message: Beware the magicians, the tricksters, the charlatans. The magician distracts you with the right hand while the left hand does the trick. Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, turn on the evening news, tune into the press briefings and watch the magicians perform their illusions, while the real story stays hidden.

“Trust none of what you hear / and less of what you see.” … “I’ll cut you in half / While you’re smiling’ ear to ear / and the freedom that you sought’s / Drifting’ like a ghost amongst the trees / this is what will be”

Backstreets reported that when the tour stopped in Washington DC, “Springsteen talked about living in an age where lies can be twisted into truth and vice versa: ‘Hey, this is where it happens! This is the City of Magic! ‘

Like GYPSY BIKER, this one is destined to be a classic.

9. LAST TO DIE

LAST TO DIE, musically, is hard-hitting and sounds a bit like ROULETTE (a TOL B-side). If anyone missed the message of this album, LAST TO DIE screams it. There’s no subtly nor nuance here. The setting is obviously Iraq, there’s war and chaos everywhere. Springsteen, a supporter of Senator John Kerry, echo’s Kerry’s words here: “We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” — John Kerry, 23 Apr 1971. I don’t dislike the song; but maybe this one is just a little TOO in your face, a little TOO obvious. If LAST TO DIE wasn’t on an album with many anti-war songs it might be more effective — but included in a catalog of songs with a similar message, this track almost feels like Springsteen is saying, “THIS IS WHAT THIS ALBUM IS ABOUT.” A bit too heavy handed; a bit too much, I think. We get it. Iraq War=Mistake.

10. LONG WALK HOME

LONG WALK HOME is a beautiful tune with great lyrics — a powerhouse that is reminiscent of REAL WORLD from the HUMAN TOUCH album. Like GIRLS IN THEIR SUMMER CLOTHES, it paints very realistic, tangible imagery of a scene — in this case, a man returning to his home town, taking in all the familiar sights — but he recognizes nothing — and he is not recognized.

Springsteen’s manager John Landau said, “It’s sort of the summational song of the album … I think it’s one of Bruce’s great masterpieces.”

I’ve read more than one review that said the estrangement the man feels in the town’s division on the war, but I think that’s reeeealllllyyyy reaching. But certainly there are specific references to America 2007:

“You know that flag flying over the courthouse / Means certain things are set in stone / who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t”

This is Springsteen’s obvious reference to how US policies about torture, rendition, wiretapping — the things America would NEVER do — America now does these things. With these lyrics, the song’s meaning becomes clear — Springsteen sees familiar America, and it LOOKS the same, but it ISN’T the same at all.

But I think the song is also about wanting to make a connection (RADIO NOWHERE, GIRLS IN THEIR SUMMER CLOTHES and other tracks); it’s about a guy who comes back to his hometown and sees all the familiar sites but it’s not “his” town anymore.

I wrote about that when I walked the halls of my grammar school a few years ago (you can read that HERE and I said, “You can’t go back in time to the home you knew, to the world you knew. People move away, people change, people die. Businesses change. Times change. We change. But you can return to the stage where “Home” was played out. The players are different, the stage looks different, but so much is the same. Some parts of the stage have been renovated, some have fallen into disrepair. Some of the new players seem friendly, others look scary. But it’s their time on the stage. It’s their time to make the stage their home.

With either interpretation, or both, this is a GREAT song.

11. DEVIL’S ARCADE

DEVIL’S ARCADE is about an Iraq war casualty, told to us by his lover. He’s been wounded in the war, perhaps fatally, and is convalescing in a medical hospital.

It’s also the most hypnotic, beautiful song on the album. It’s intensely personal, sensual, and compelling. Is he alive? Will he recover? Or is he dead? We’re not sure.

She remembers their first fumbling sexual experiences (“The rush of your lips, the feel of your name”) and his enlisting (“You said “Heroes are needed, so heroes get made””) and another indictment of the war (“Somebody made a bet, somebody paid”). Is he dead? Does she talk about the future they’ll never share? It’s hard to say, the ambiguity is doubtless deliberate, but as the soldier lies in the hospital, she asks him, “Just whisper the word tomorrow in my ear / House on a quiet street, a home for the brave” Promise me there will be a tomorrow. Promise me we can put this darkness behind us … . Is she reassuring him that he will recover? Of bemoaning what they’ll never share?

We d
on’t get the answer, just the beautiful, hypnotic wanderings, a bedroom drenched in sunshine, breakfast, and the healing … .

“The beat of your heart, the beat of your heart

The beat of your heart, the beat of your heart

The beat of your heart, the slow burning away

Of the bitter fires of the devil’s arcade”

The trauma of war, the casualties, the broken dreams, the hope for the future.

Beautiful. Perfect.

12. BROKE THE MOLD

Thematically, DEVIL’S ARCADE is the final track and the additional “secret” song, BROKE THE MOLD, was a last minute addition to the CD when Springsteen’s associate and close friend Terry Magovern passed away on July 30, 2007. Springsteen wrote the song specifically for Terry, and obviously put a lot of love into it. Without knowing the background of the song it would be easy to dismiss lines like, “Well they built the Titanic to be one of a kind, but many ships have ruled the seas / They built the Eiffel Tower to stand alone, but they could build another if they please” as contrived, but the second half of the lyrics is pure gold and will likely be quoted at funerals for years to come: “Now your death is upon us and we’ll return your ashes to the earth / And I know you’ll take comfort in knowing you’ve been roundly blessed and cursed / But love is a power greater than death, just like the songs and stories told / And when she built you, brother, she broke the mold”

The track is stripped bare, just harmonica and guitar, and reminds me of MY CITY OF RUINS.

Interestingly (but hardly surprising) the song still fits into the themes of MAGIC (losing a brother or friend, or a way of life, changing times, the loss of war, and remembering a life so different than now). Terry’s song also applies to many of the characters we’ve met on this trip: The gypsy biker, the soldiers, the town folk, and each of us.

Springsteen continues to demonstrate that he is a man of deep feeling. he’s also a hell of a songwriter.

MAGIC is a rich tapestry of America 2007, told in Springsteen’s definitive style, and is a worthy addition to the catalog of the man who continues to prove it all night.

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