The Boss keeps the faith in 'Magic'

Los Angeles Times, 2007-09-26, by: Mel Evans
****
There comes a point in most believers' lives where when faith transforms from an inevitability to a choice. Something alters life's usual patterns - a personal tragedy, perhaps, or an intellectual realization - and what seemed so true suddenly can't be trusted. This isn't true just for God-fearing people; any creed is vulnerable to such a crisis. Getting past it can feel like an accomplishment or a sneaking betrayal, depending on whether you genuinely renew your convictions or just decide that credulity is the best way to survive.

Few artists must feel the obligation to keep the faith as heavily as Bruce Springsteen. For nearly 40 years, he's relentlessly returned to one great subject: that moment when an ordinary person confronts some higher power, whether it's love or death or the state patrol, and makes an ennobling if sometimes fatally wrong-headed commitment to act.

Springsteen's fascination with these personal epiphanies has earned him a massive cult, and why not? His lyrics blend religious and secular scenarios to describe the various apocalypses his fans might encounter in their own lives. Rife with Catholic imagery but attached to the kind of rousing rock that follows directly from American revivalist and black church traditions, Springsteen turns his tales into rituals. Each hearing allows the committed fan to renew her devotion, not just to the Boss, but to her own path.

What happens, though, when the prophet begins to wonder if it's all a hollow game? That's when the choice comes in, to reinvest or abandon ship. On "Magic," Springsteen's 16th studio album and the latest to reunite him the E Street Band - his gospel choir - he recommits fully to the uplifting oomph of his rock 'n' roll formula.

Zealots (and when it comes to the Boss, the most casual rock fans become zealots) will thrill to what the E Street Band accomplishes on "Magic," which gets a full release Tuesday after a vinyl sneak last week. Roadhouse rock that would lie flaccid in anybody else's hands hooks the ear, sounding not exactly fresh, but urgent, necessary.

Springsteen pulls out all of his vocal tricks - the breathy bluesman's bark, the ex-choirboy croon, the vaguely Western hobo snarl - and smiles as they sell so beautifully. He does the same thing with his lyrics; it seems impossible that this catechism-quoter could get away with another line like "Your tears, they fill the rosary/at your feet, my temple of bones," but within the somber and deliberately repetitive setting of "I'll Work for Your Love," he does. Even for a lapsed Springsteenian like this critic, the sheer backbone of this album offers delight.

But a sadder and wiser willfulness permeates these 12 tracks. It's present in Brendan O'Brien's production, the music, which removes all gunk from the formulas Springsteen's been using forever and gets them shining. And it's deeply embedded in lyrics that examine what happens after illusions are shattered, and life just goes on.

The first doubter Springsteen confronts is himself. "Radio Nowhere," the album's lead track and first single, depicts the Boss lost on a lonely highway, wondering if he can connect to anything pop has to offer now. The song is discouragingly fogeyish if considered from a topical standpoint: Tom Petty already wrote a protest song about corporate radio, and Springsteen's refrain, "I just want to feel some rhythm," seems an odd complaint, considering how much Kanye West and Beyonc? gets airtime these days.

But as an opening invocation, "Radio Nowhere," gains force. Producer Brendan O'Brien compresses the nine-piece E Street Band's contributions into a single groove, all seemingly emanating from Nils Lofgren's? choogling guitar riff. The circular structure Springsteen often employs - in which one phrase tumbles into another like Jack Kerouac's unfurling scroll - takes his words beyond surface meaning. The chanted refrain, which soon transforms to "I just want to feel your rhythm," signals entry into that sacred zone where the communal clout of the E Street Band turns worn rock tropes into revelations.

From that point on, "Magic" unfolds beyond any reference point besides Springsteen's own body of work - which makes sense, since it's a ritual object, with every song designed to fit into the arena shows where devotees will soon commune.

Elements of old favorites continually surface: - "Livin' in the Future" resurrects the jumping horns of "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,"; there's a whiff of "I Wanna Marry You" around "Girls in Their Summer Clothes,"; the descending chorus of "Long Walk Home" reaches back to "My Hometown." Under O'Brien's relentlessly strict guidance (this is one clean, tight-sounding record), every E Streeter finds his Zen: the keyboards build moodily, sax man Clarence Clemons blusters with more focus than usual, those Lofgren/Steve Van Zandt guitar riffs rip, and Max Weinberg is a big-hearted machine on the drums.

And though the songs on "Magic" tell stories, only one - the eerie "Devil's Arcade," in which a lover pleads with the ghost, perhaps living, of her desert-damaged soldier boy - aims for the specificity of earlier ballads such as "Meeting Across the River" or "Sinaloa Cowboys."

Instead, some revisit very familiar scenarios, like a girl's front porch or a highway at night, but inject much more ambiguity into the scenes. Others, like "Your Own Worst Enemy" and the title track, aren't story songs at all. They're extended metaphors, exploring the emotional experience of self-questioning in ways that end up feeling surprisingly personal.

Fans have had decades of fun scouring the Jersey Shore for the origins of Springsteen's characters, but those he gives life to on "Magic" could exist in many contexts. The manipulative ing?nue in "You'll Be Comin' Down" could be Marilyn or Britney; the lost bohemian warrior of "Gypsy Biker" might be a war casualty, but by verse three he seems to have transformed into Terry Magovern?, Springsteen's longtime personal assistant, who died in July (he's also the subject of the hidden track "Terry's Song").

"Magic" is a record of this moment - Springsteen makes quiet reference throughout to what he sees as an errant Bush administration and, alternately, to a marriage at sometimes shaky mid-life - but it also aims for timelessness.

It's the way Springsteen injects his American Bible stories with the air of disbelief that makes "Magic" a truly mature and memorable album. He knows his fans need that rush, that jump outside their own feelings of disappointment and limitation, that he's given them for so long. Yet more and more, he seems to realize that disappointment and limitation are his m?tier, and that sometimes a giant saxophone fill and a chorus about hungry hearts can't solve the problem. "Magic" bares its own devices beautifully, providing a kind of transcendence that allows for listeners to keep their feet on the ground. It's worthy of the choice to believe.

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