Monday, October 15, 2007
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Magic’
Jon Landau is a liar.
In the runup to the release of Bruce Springsteen’s latest record, “Magic,” the Boss’ longtime manager, collaborator, and friend claimed the album isn’t dominated by politics. That’s frankly and utterly untrue: “Magic” is actually the most overtly political and partisan album of Springsteen’s long and storied career.
It’s not surprising that Landau would employ such a strategery. It’s his job to make sure Springsteen makes money, and he knows this album is going to alienate a large chunk of its potential customers. The blatant partisanship on display throughout goes a long way toward negating the feel-good vibes associated with the reassembly of the vaunted E Street Band (this is the first Springsteen release to feature his beloved mates since 2002’s “The Rising”).
But it’s also ironic, disingenuous, and downright hypocritical that Springsteen’s advocate and spokesman would shade the truth about an album accusing politicians of doing that very same thing. The CD’s title track isn’t referring to anything ethereal or otherworldly; Springsteen’s focus is the method behind the trick—deception, illusion, misinformation. One look at Bruce’s scowling, grizzled visage on the front cover should tell you this record isn’t about having fun.
The majority of “Magic’s” 11 tracks touch on Springsteen’s feelings about the current state of the union in one way or another, informed seemingly chapter and verse from the tired, standard liberal talking points of the day. “Gypsy Biker” tells the story of family and town dealing with the returning corpse of a solider in a “fools parade,” on whose blood “speculators made their money.” The supposed loss of freedoms in the name of homeland security crops up throughout the record, most blatantly during “Long Walk Home.” “Livin’ in the Future,” meanwhile, references Springsteen’s participation in the 2004 Vote for Change tour, where “I opened up my heart to you/it got all damaged and undone/My ship Liberty sailed away on/a bloody red horizon.” And after all that effort, he still “woke up Election Day/skies gunpowder and shades of gray” and had to suffer the indignity of watching President Bush “come walkin’ through town/Your boot heels clickin’/Like the barrel of a pistol spinnin’ ’round.”
The aforementioned “Magic,” sung from the perspective of, presumably, President Bush, warns:
I got a shiny saw blade
All I need’s a volunteer
I’ll cut you in half
While you’re smiling ear to ear
And the freedom that you sought’s
Driftin’ like a ghost amongst the trees
(On a side note: It continues to mystify me how the president’s critics believe he’s a moron and a master deceiver and manipulator all at the same time.)
And then there’s “Last to Die,” a piece of utter propaganda whose oft-repeated chorus blares: “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake.” This phrase sticks out like a sore thumb; for a man who accuses the president of trading on the emotions of 9/11 and the blood of our fighting men, how is Springsteen’s use of wounded and dead soldiers to make a point any different? A line like this is beneath the Boss.
The one place he gets it right is finale “Devil’s Arcade,” a sympathetic, heart-stopping story of a wounded veteran back home with his beloved after surviving the horrors of battle. It begins with a subdued organ, then violin, and continues adding pieces of the E Street Band until building to a thrilling climax. We’re left with the soldier wanting to feel nothing but the beating of his lover’s heart—and all the while Mighty Max Weinberg’s drums hammer and thunder away to close the record.
That’s the real shame about this album. Landau was right-on about one thing: The E Street Band is absolutely on fire, sounding even better than it did on “The Rising.” There are bits and pieces of just about every phase of Springsteen’s 35-year career represented here: The Clarence Clemons-driven “Livin’ in the Future” is a distant cousin of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”; “Magic” is a quiet acoustic number of spellbinding power reminiscent of the best moments of “Nebraska” or “Ghost of Tom Joad”; “Radio Nowhere” is one of the meanest, hardest-rocking songs Springsteen’s ever written; “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” is a pure pop masterpiece; “Gypsy Biker” and “Long Walk Home” are simply gorgeous, expansive rock songs on every conceivable level—in other words, what Springsteen does best.
As a whole, the album is most like his 1984 pop/rock smash “Born in the U.S.A.”—without the cheesy synthesizers. These new songs rarely stretch past four minutes, and—learning a valuable lesson from the overlong “Rising”—“Magic” powers along and breezes by in 45 minutes. And I don’t know what kind of magic producer Brendan O’Brien pulled off in the studio, but Springsteen’s voice hasn’t sounded this steady and clear in two decades.
But I just can’t get past the lyrics. I don’t care how much you hate George W. Bush (I’m certainly not a fan, even though I held my nose and voted for him last time around), you and I aren’t from the same planet if you can absorb blatantly political songs into your soul. If someone had written a similar record 10 years ago bashing Bill Clinton, I certainly couldn’t see myself still listening to those songs. These tracks are all great for riding in the car—when the words are more difficult to make out—but Springsteen’s naked intent casts a pall over much of this record that is too hard to get through.
My favorite song on the entire album doesn’t even appear on the track list. “Magic’s” 12th and final entry is simply named “Terry’s Song,” a basic piano/guitar/harmonica tribute to another longtime Springsteen collaborator, Terry Magovern. Sounding like it’s straight off Neil Young’s 1972 classic “Harvest,” this beautiful and haunting eulogy will stop you cold with its honest emotion and love—no point to make, other than honoring a friend.
The “Magic” sessions were so prolific for Springsteen, there’s talk of a whole other album’s worth of material left over that didn’t fit the mold and mood of this release—there’s even chatter we could hear these songs as early as next spring. My hope is that Springsteen said all he wanted to about the president and the war on this record, and the remaining songs are on his brilliant down-to-earth level. Because “Magic” truly is a fabulous listen if you can tune out the partisanship. I would relish hearing more of where these songs came from.
***On a related note: The Springsteen community is abuzz this week with the news that Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, the husband-and-wife team that founded Arcade Fire, joined Springsteen for two songs during Sunday’s set in Ottawa, Canada (the Fire are from Canada, you see). In the encore, the Boss brought them onstage for the long-lost “State Trooper” and then covered the Fire’s “Keep the Car Running.” The latter is not only my favorite Arcade Fire song (it hails from this year’s “Neon Bible”), but maybe the best song I’ve heard all year. It’s fitting, too, because Springsteen was the first influence I thought of when I heard the song for the first time. I haven’t been fortunate enough to see the Fire live yet, but from everything I’ve read and heard, Springsteen could do a whole lot worse in the pass-the-torch category. I’ve only found a rough recording of the “Running” performance so far, but the E Street Band powering this anthem still gave me chills. Here’s hoping there’s a good tape about to surface somewhere.***