Magic – Bruce Springsteen
Let’s get things straight first. If you’re shocked and dismayed that there are political leanings subtle and painfully obvious in Bruce Springsteen’s 20th album, “Magic,” then you’re living deep within the delusions of your residence in Fool’s Paradise. Springsteen has always had a political and social edge to his work. He was against the Vietnam War and, luckily for him, narrowly avoided being drafted. His early songs dealt with the urban street urchins that those in 1970s suburbia only saw on a television set. Then, his material focused on the downtrodden, stepped on blue-collar workers who spent their days hoping for a better life to come. Even his celebrated anthem, “Born in the U.S.A.” is more cynical in tone than upbeat patriotic anthem. Over the years he’s played concerts against nuclear energy and for numerous charities including veterans' groups and performed the anti-war number, “War,” during the height of his commercial peak.
All this took place before his participation in 2004’s Vote For Change tour and the Iraq War themes running throughout his two solo albums (Devils & Dust and Seeger Sessions).
With the trusty E Street Band on hand for Magic, Springsteen conjures the ebullient music akin to some of their best and most forceful work but it’s wrapped in the ambiguity of a 21st century world that’s uncomfortably similar to the fiction of George Orwell.
One can listen to the album and not think about a post-Iraq War world, but it gets extremely hard on “Gypsy Biker,” “Last to Die” and “Devil’s Arcade.” And, it’s these tracks, the most straightforward and angry of the album’s 12 tracks that offer the most lasting impact. The sense of mourning gets particularly personal on the hidden track, “Terry’s Song,” a eulogy to a Springsteen friend and personal assistant who he had known since 1972.
Unlike his direct storytelling days of the past, Springsteen prefers to house his songs in multiple lyrical shades; the purpose of his words almost hidden. That’s especially evident in the sparse setting for the title track. The paranoia of our Big Brother times almost glides by unnoticed in a method that mimics the erosion of our civil rights as U.S. citizens. “Livin’ in the Future” follows a similar pattern of lyrical sleight of hand, using a relationship theme to comment on the Big Picture.
While the words may not present the immediate impact Springsteen that fans have become accustomed to via “Rosalita,” “Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” and “Hungry Heart,” they still retain a degree of power as you wade through the twists, turns and multiple meanings.
It’s the music that gets you past those initial rough spots, as Springsteen and the E Street Band revisit that classic sound heard on his work in the 70s and 80s. It represents the pop heard along the Jersey shore of his youth with strands of soul (“Livin’ in the Future”), folk (“Magic”) and the Beach Boys (“Girls In Their Summer Clothes”). Wrapped together it’s made to fill an arena without the production gimmicks to pull it off. With the line “is there anybody alive out there?” opening track, “Radio Nowhere,” most effectively rides the balance Springsteen hopes to produce here. The anthemic feel breaks listeners out of their passivity, while it moves forward, unsure yet hopeful for the future.