Magic by Bruce Springsteen
Last year I read somewhere, I think it was in an issue of Rolling Stone, Bruce Springsteen say that he wanted to make up for his sporadic output from the late-80’s through the 90’s, by making as much music now as he could. He’s certainly stuck to that so far — Magic is the fifth new album he’s released in as many years. It’s the least serious of his recent work, and therefore must be seen as somewhat of a departure, even though it features the big, booming, go-for-broke rock sound that’s been beloved by Springsteen fans ever since Born to Run dropped thirty years ago.
What sets Magic apart from Bruce’s other work of late — especially 2002’s The Rising, his last album with the E Street Band — is the relative lack of politics. Two late tracks, “Last to Die” and “Devil’s Arcade” deal in different ways with the war in Iraq, but they don’t speak for the album as a whole. They’re two of the best songs, particularly “Arcade,” which follows a wounded veteran’s readjustment to home, but Bruce seems content to let them speak for themselves, and otherwise keeps things more upbeat.
It’s a good album. I’ve been a huge fan of his so-called late period; I thought The Rising was brilliant and moving, listened to Devil’s and Dust so much I damn near wore it out, and hold We Shall Overcome, his raucous, folk-fueled tribute to Pete Seeger as one of my favorite albums of last year. But with Magic, I get the sense Bruce is ready to lay down the political statements and war protests — on-the-money though they are — stretch his legs, and just rock ‘n roll for the sake of rockin’ ‘n rollin’. To that end, the first three songs on the album are straight-forward, guitar-driven rockers, highlighted by the invaluable Clarence Clemmons cutting loose with the inevitable sax solo on “Livin’ in the Future.” Not much to think about, just well-played rock ‘n roll to cleanse the palette.
As good as Bruce is at the up-tempo stuff, he’s at his best when he’s singing about the darker side of life: men and women trapped in bad situations, young people yearning to transcend their circumstances, ordinary people touched by sadness and tragedy. Fortunately, though there’s nothing on Magic to compare with the 9/11-inspired emotion on The Rising, or the dark, distinctive character sketches on Devils and Dust, a few numbers, like “Gypsy Biker” and the ominous, atmospheric title track, recall Bruce’s best work from Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Something that has set Springsteen apart his entire career is his willingness to play with his sound. One of the best songs on The Rising, for instance, was “Worlds Apart,” which blended booming drums and electric guitar with Sufi qawwali music. On Magic, the best song might just be “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” a nostalgic anthem to youth and romance that sounds like the love-child of The Boss and the Beach Boys. It’s like nothing else he’s ever done.
It’s hard to say whether this will go down as one of Springsteen’s best albums. For anyone else it would be a magnum opus, but I’m not sure it’ll hold up so well when compared with Darkness on the Edge of Town or Born in the U.S.A. Still, it’s proof that Springsteen and his sprawling, stage-filling E Street Band have a lot of music yet to make. Now pushing 60, Bruce is fresher, more energetic, and making more exciting music than artists ⅓ his age. What makes him the best? It’s simple, really: he’s got the best band, and he writes the best songs. What do you call that, other than magic?