In Love With Pop, Uneasy With the World

New York Times, 2007-09-30, by: A. O. Scott
IT was the last day of summer, but on the boardwalk here it seemed more like a perfect morning in early July: the Atlantic Ocean sparkled under a cloudless sky; the humid air was soothed by a soft, salty breeze. I looked down the empty beach, past the souvenir shops and snack bars with their fresh paint and new green awnings, toward the proud Victorian hulk of the old Casino, and felt that I had walked into a Bruce Springsteen song. (Oh, I don?t know. Maybe ?Fourth of July, Asbury Park.? Or is that too obvious?)

The feeling, no less potent for being self-induced, had been with me all morning. Bright and early, me and my girl ? my wife of nearly two decades, that is ? had let the screen door slam, dropped off the kids at school and set out on the open road, blowing through the E-ZPass lanes on the Garden State Parkway in our Volvo station wagon. We had an advance copy of Mr. Springsteen?s new album, ?Magic,? in the CD slot, and most of his back catalog in reserve on the iPod. And now we were driving down Kingsley, figuring we?d get a latte. One more chance to make it real. Tramps like us, baby!

Our purpose was not to fantasize but rather to observe the E Street Band in rehearsal, and then to hear what the man himself had to say about the new record, the coming tour and whatever else was on his mind. ?Magic? is, musically, one of the most upbeat, accessible records he has made, even as its themes and stories make it one of his most political. Once again he is hitting the road as a presidential election heats up.

?I like coming out on those years,? he would tell me later, when we sat down to talk in a backstage dressing room after the rehearsal. ?Whatever small little bit we can do, that?s a good time to do it.?

At an age when most rock ?n? rollers, if they?re still alive, have become either tributes to or parodies of their earlier selves, Mr. Springsteen seems to have settled into an enviable groove, with new musical forms to explore and an existing body of work that never seems to get old, with plenty to say and an audience that hangs on his every word.

In which ? as if it weren?t already obvious ? I include myself. I?ve been listening to Bruce Springsteen for a long time, but I can?t pretend that he provided the soundtrack for my youth. I spent my teenage years in the thrall of punk rock and its various aftermaths and came to Springsteen late, past the stage of life when his great anthems of romance, rebellion and escape might have had their most direct impact. As a result, I associate his work with the sorrows and satisfactions of adulthood; it?s music to grow up to, not out of.

Mr. Springsteen?s best songs, it seems to me, are about compromise and stoicism; disappointment and faith; work, patience and resignation. They are also, frequently ? even the ones he wrote when he was still in his 20s ? about nostalgia, about the desire to recapture those fleeting moments of intensity and possibility we associate with being young.

Moments that tend, not coincidentally, to crystallize within a certain kind of popular song. A song, let?s say, like ?Girls in Their Summer Clothes,? which arrives smack in the middle of ?Magic? and which the E Street Band was in the middle of playing when my wife and I tiptoed through the doors of the Asbury Park Convention Hall. It was a little after 10; the band was about an hour into its morning rehearsal, preparing for a tour of North America and Europe that kicks off on Tuesday in Hartford.

The Convention Hall is a battered, pocket-size arena where, as a teenager, Mr. Springsteen saw bands like the Who and the Doors. This morning it was filled with a shimmery, summery sound, as if we had traveled back 40 years into the mid-?60s sonic landscape of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and the Byrds. Steve van Zandt was strumming a 12-string guitar, and the vocal harmonies, the chiming keyboards, Clarence Clemons?s saxophone and Soozie Tyrell?s violin combined to produce a lush orchestral cushion for Mr. Springsteen?s voice, which swooned through a lyric as unabashedly romantic as the song?s title.

?I wanted one thing on the record that was the perfect pop universe,? Mr. Springsteen said, once the band had wandered off and he had finished an early lunch of granola with fresh fruit and soy milk. It was two days before his 58th birthday, and he looked trimmer and tanner than he had the last time I?d seen him, which was on the JumboTron video screen at Giants Stadium a few years back. ?You know, that day when it?s all right there; it?s the world that only exists in pop songs, and once in a while you stumble on it.?

Not that ?Girls in Their Summer Clothes? is untouched by melancholy. Its narrator, after all, stands and watches as the girls of the title ?pass me by.? ?It?s the longing, the unrequited longing for that perfect world,? Mr. Springsteen continued. ?Pop is funny. It?s a tease. It?s an important one, but it?s a tease, and therein resides its beauty and its joke.?

And much of ?Magic,? on first hearing, seems to unfold in a similar spirit. There is a brightness of sound and a lightness of touch that are not quite like anything else Mr. Springsteen has done recently. In the past five years he has released four albums of original material, a zigzag through new and familiar styles and idioms. ?The Rising? (2002) brought the E Street Band back into the studio after a long hiatus (their sound updated by the producer Brendan O?Brien) and answered the trauma of 9/11 with the defiant, redemptive roar of solid, down-the-middle rock. With ?Devils and Dust? (2005) Mr. Springsteen picked up the thread of Western stories and acoustic ballads that stretched back through other non-E Street projects like ?The Ghost of Tom Joad? and ?Nebraska? (as well as some parts of ?The River?). ?The Seeger Sessions,? released last year, was an old-time old-lefty hootenanny, with a big, unruly jug band rollicking through spirituals, union songs and Dust Bowl ballads.

All of those discs were infused with Mr. Springsteen?s bedrock populism, but none was quite what you would call a pop record. Pop, though, is the term he and his band mates use, again and again, to describe ?Magic.? Mr. Van Zandt, who has been playing and arguing about music with Mr. Springsteen for 40 years (scholars cite Nov. 3, 1967, as the date of their first meeting), noted that in the past Mr. Springsteen?s more tuneful, playful compositions tended not to make it onto albums.

?It was nice on this one to start to be a little bit more inclusive,? he said in a telephone interview a few days after my visit to Asbury Park, ?with a little bit more of the poppier side of things, without losing any of the integrity, or any of the high standards. That was a nice surprise, a nice change of pace to include those things and integrate them into the album, rather than having them be fun to record and then cast them aside.?

For his part, Mr. Sprinsteen said that in writing the songs for ?Magic,? he had experienced ?a reinfatuation with pop music.? ?I went back to some forms that I either hadn?t used previously or hadn?t used a lot, which was actual pop productions,? he said. ?I wrote a lot of hooks. That was just the way that the songs started to write themselves, I think because I felt free enough that I wasn?t afraid of the pop music. In the past I wanted to make sure that my music was tough enough for the stories I was going to tell.?

The paradox of ?Magic? may be that some of its stories are among the toughest he has told. The album is sometimes a tease but rarely a joke. The title track, for instance, comes across as a seductive bit of carnival patter, something you might have heard on the Asbury Park boardwalk in the old days. A magician, his voice whispery and insinuating in a minor key, lures you in with descriptions of his tricks that grow more sinister with each verse. (?I?ve got a shiny saw blade/All I need?s a volunteer.?) ?Trust none of what you hear/And less of what you see,? he warns. And the song?s refrain ? ?This is what will be? ? grows more chilling as you absorb the rest of the album?s nuances and shadows.

You can always trust what you hear on a Bruce Springsteen record (irony, he notes, is not something he?s known for), but in this case it pays to listen closely, to make note of the darkness, so to speak, that hovers at the edge of the shiny hooks and harmonies. ?I took these forms and this classic pop language and I threaded it through with uneasiness,? Mr. Springsteen said.

And while the songs on ?Magic? characteristically avoid explicit topical references, there is no mistaking that the source of the unease is, to a great extent, political. The title track, Mr. Springsteen explained, is about the manufacture of illusion, about the Bush administration?s stated commitment to creating its own reality.

?This is a record about self-subversion,? he told me, about the way the country has sabotaged and corrupted its ideals and traditions. And in its own way the album itself is deliberately self-subverting, troubling its smooth, pleasing surfaces with the blunt acknowledgment of some rough, unpleasant facts.

?Magic? picks up where ?The Rising? left off and takes stock of what has happened in this country since Sept. 11. Then, the collective experiences of grief and terror were up front. Now those same emotions lurk just below the surface, which means that the catharsis of rock ?n? roll uplift is harder to come by. The key words of ?The Rising? were hope, love, strength, faith, and they were grounded in a collective experience of mourning. There is more loneliness in ?Magic,? and, notwithstanding the relaxed pop mood, a lot less optimism.

The stories told in songs like ?Gypsy Biker? and ?The Devil?s Arcade? are vignettes of private loss suffered by the lovers and friends of soldiers whose lives were shattered or ended in Iraq. ?The record is a tallying of cost and of loss,? Mr. Springsteen said. ?That?s the burden of adulthood, period. But that?s the burden of adulthood in these times, squared.?

In conversation, Mr. Springsteen has a lot to say about what has happened in America over the last six years: ?Disheartening and heartbreaking. Not to mention enraging? is how he sums it up. But his most direct and powerful statement comes, as you might expect, onstage. It is not anything he says or sings, but rather a piece of musical dramaturgy, the apparently simple, technical matter of shifting from one song to the next.

On the Convention Hall stage, the band handled the new material as deftly as the chestnuts ? after 35 years together, communication is pretty much effortless ? pausing to work out an occasional kink or adjust the sound mix. But they must have gone over the segue from ?The Rising? to their next number at least a half-dozen times.

?You?ve got to let that chord sustain. Everybody!? Mr. Springsteen urged. ?It can?t die down.?

The guitarists had the extra challenge of keeping the sound going while changing instruments, a series of baton-relay sprints for the crew whose job was to assist with the switch, until a dissonant organ ring came in to signal a change of key and the thunderous opening of ?Last to Die.? It?s not much of an exaggeration to say that Mr. Springsteen?s take on the post-9/11 history of the United States can be measured in the space between the choruses of those two songs. The audience is hurled from a rousing exhortation (?Come on up to the rising?) to a grim, familiar question: ?Who?ll be the last to die for a mistake??

?That?s why we had to get that very right today,? he said later. ?You saw us working on it. That thing has to come down like the world?s falling on you, that first chord. It?s got to screech at the end of ?The Rising,? and then it?s got to crack, rumble. The whole night is going to turn on that segue. That?s what we?re up there for right now, that 30 seconds.?

But the night does not end there. Onstage, ?Last to Die? is followed, as it is on the album, by a song called ?Long Walk Home.? In the first verse, the speaker travels to some familiar hometown spots and experiences an alienation made especially haunting by the language in which he describes it: ?I looked into their faces/They were all rank strangers to me. That curious, archaic turn of phrase rank strangers evokes an eerie old mountain lament of the same title, recorded by the Stanley Brothers.

In that particular song a guy comes back to his town and recognizes nothing and is recognized by nothing,? Mr. Springsteen said. The singer in ?Long Walk Home,? that?s his experience. His world has changed. The things that he thought he knew, the people who he thought he knew, whose ideals he had something in common with, are like strangers. The world that he knew feels totally alien. I think that?s what?s happened in this country in the past six years.

And so the song?s images of a vanished small town life (?The diner was shuttered and boarded/With a sign that just said ?gone?) turn into metaphors, the last of which is delivered with the clarity and force that has distinguished Mr. Springsteen?s best writing:

My father said Son, we?re lucky in this town
It?s a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you
Nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone.

You know that flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, and what we?ll do
And what we won?t

It?s gonna be a long walk home.

That?s the end of the story we?re telling on a nightly basis,? Mr. Springsteen said. ?Because that?s the way it?s supposed to be. And that?s not the way it is right now.?