Bruce Springsteen: Magic
RockBeatStone Magazine, 2007-09, by: James Ketchell
The wonders of the internet now allow fans to get their mits on new material long before the official release date. With this being perhaps the most hotly anticipated new record of the autumn, it's no wonder that I've been able to listen to this before it's official release on the 1st of October.
However, my hands were trembling as I loaded the CD into my record player (we don't all listen to music through laptop speakers, you know...). I was worried because he had released some of his most original and artistic work over his last two projects, the solo work of Devils + Dust and his amazing search for the heart and soul of American music in his recordings and tour with the Seeger Sessions Band. Was this a retrograde step for the Boss? Was it merely an exercise in reminiscence?
Thankfully, Magic is neither. It's a fully fledged Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street band album that as well as alluding to the past in both it's lyrical content and musical style, is still thoroughly modern.
Opener ?Radio Nowhere' (which was released as a free internet MP3 download - even Bruce has entered the modern age) sees guitars clash and saxophone wail as the Boss searches for the soul of rock music. He proclaims that, "I want 1000 guitars and 1000 drums". Well you make enough noise with the E-Street band's original take on this Bruce. As I've written before, this needs to be heard in a Cadillac, speeding across the desert or something. Perfect driving music. Just watch your speed limit, using this song as an excuse in court will probably not stand up.
?Livin' in the Future' is perhaps the catchiest song on the record. Sounding like an outtake from The River, it feels as if it's a distant cousin to ?Hungry Hearts' from the aforementioned album. The song has stood out from the first listen and it's refreshing to know that he's still prepared to write songs with such a poppy appeal. A great, great tune which sounds as if it was written in the late 1970s and not 2007. But please don't hold that against the song. This should bring the house down in a live context.
?Your Own Worst Enemy' is brooding with a more modern take on things. It is very akin to some of his recent solo material, in my opinion with a more introspective take on things. ?Gypsy Biker' again takes stock from Devils + Dust, although it is a more upbeat affair. Driving acoustic guitar and haunting harmonica blend well.
?I'll Work For Your Love' has the twinkle piano trademark E-street band start and is perhaps the biggest grower on the album so far. Violin, piano and harmonica all mix well and it's perhaps the most lyrically ambiguous song on the record, " I'm just out here searching for my own piece of the cross". Well whatever Bruce, but it certainly scratched itself into my mind. ?Magic' has a haunting, brooding feel to it with electric organ and a slow tempo start. Again, it feels like an over-produced solo Bruce song. Lyrically, it alludes to some of Springsteen's classic themes: the American dream, and searching for oneself within a crazy, crazy world.
?Last to Die' ups the tempo and the stakes in the record. From the first chords the ears are perked. The catchy guitar gets better and better on each listen, as do the lyrics which again seem to have a dark undertone as the protagonist seems to long for a world which no longer exists:
"We took a highway 'till the road went black
We mark truth or consequences on our back
A voice drifted up from the radio
Some other voice from long ago"
Thematically it reminds me of ?Racin' in the Street' or ?Backstreets' only written by a middle-aged man looking back. Which is not really that surprising, if you think about it.
?Long Walk Home' was premiered at the Seeger Sessions Band concert that I witnessed in November 2006. He had written it the night before he played it. It was great then and now it packs even more of a punch. It is probably the lyrical highlight on the album, a real masterpiece which is political, personal and beautiful at the same time and in all the right ways. In many respects it's an anti-dote to ?Last to Die' and it comes as no surprise that these two tracks are juxtaposed together in the tracklisting.
?Devil's Arcade' has an almost Pink Floydesque quality to it. A poignant wall of noise builds, intersected by a violin which is mournful and quite simply beautiful. Lyrically ambiguous, it reminds me of a number of Dylan's songs. Not musically or lyrically, just emotionally. Devil's Arcade could be a shopping arcade housed on Dylan's ?Desolation Row'.
This masterpiece officially closes the album and will be a true experience. I expect grown men in tears as the tension builds and builds. Possibly Springsteen's best song since I can remember.
The bonus track, ?Terry's song' could too have been written by Springsteen in the late 1970s. It's a fitting and moving tribute to a friend who has recently passed away. A lovely way to immortalise this man and his feelings towards him. In many respects this comes as no surprise that he kept this one off the official tracklisting, it is a very different song both in mood and subject matter to the other ones on the album.
However, having read all of that you'll probably be wondering what on earth is wrong with the album? There are a couple of clunkers on there, which I could have done without listening to, to be honest. ?You'll be Coming Home' sounds like a rising outtake and is lyrically inspid and musically dull. ?Girls in their Summer Clothes' has the most promising song title and the most disappointing final product. This dirge-like pop-ballad never really gets going for me and never does amount to much.
Overall Springsteen has managed to create an impressive piece of work. Forgetting the couple of poor songs, the album has a dark and brooding quality to it, some great rockers and emotionally charged songs. Taken as a whole, Springsteen has created an album which although taking cues from his and music's past is forward looking and thoroughly modern. If one were to compare this album to some of the other ?oldie' albums of recent times, then it is a better and more consistent album than Dylan's Modern Times and about 1,000 times better than the Stones' A Bigger Bang which has not stood the test of time (although I completely fell in love with it on its release). Of course it's not in the league of Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town but was it ever going to be?
It's early days yet, but I have a feeling that people will still be listening to most of the songs from Magic in years to come. As Springsteen fans or plain music lovers we can ask for no more. Definitely one to obtain (legally please) on the 1st of October.