Bruce Springsteen Magic(Columbia) Buy it from Insound
I'm not gonna lie to you, I love Bruce Springsteen. He's still the best live performer I've ever seen, his commitment to underdogs and ordinary people helped shape my own worldview, and his pragmatic approach to life's difficult choices and how they shape us seems to me realistic and not a little profound. But I'm also past the age where I can convince myself to like music that doesn't hit me on a gut level. And Bruce's post-Tunnel of Love work has been marked by equal parts brilliance and mediocrity. Unfortunately, at the same time Bruce has chosen to work with a producer, Brendan O'Brien, whose sound guarantees a tiny bit of radio play but also sacrifices the great E Street Band's sui generisity. More on this later.
As mixed affairs go, Magic is less mixed than others, namely the hit and miss Devils and Dust and The Rising. Every song has redeeming qualities, usually meaning propulsive performances and at least a modicum of melody. But the songs almost uniformly fail to inspire. Why? That's what I've been trying to figure out.
I think what's missing is Bruce's unparalleled attention to detail, which has been overwhelmed by his tendency to wax mythic. At his best he could achieve the mythic through his attention to detail. Think of his best lyrics:
"Screen door slams, Mary's dress waves"
"Takin' turns dancin' with Maria/while the band plays 'Night of the Johnstown Flood'"
"I got on it last night and my shirt got caught/and they kept me spinnin'/they didn't think I'd ever get off"
I could go on for pages. He put you in the song and let the music take you away and you felt part of something bigger, older, grander than your ordinary life though that's exactly what it was. Suddenly you saw yourself as part of a larger struggle, made up of your day to day choices, and shaping an epic of girlfriends, wives, jobs, family, survival. It's this quality that made The Ghost of Tom Joad his last great album of original material. It also makes Girls In Their Summer Clothes one of the strongest, no, make that THE strongest tune on Magic. It's also what holds back a good song like Livin' In The Future from being a classic Springsteen rave-up. Who's gonna be at his show swaying back and forth singing lines like "My ship Liberty sailed away on a bloody red horizon"? With all the oblique and especially religious imagery it seems like Bruce is finally trying to be the new Dylan he was originally hyped as, except this time it's the born again, white makeup troubadour that retreated from present day reality in the late 70s. This tendency is stretched to the breaking point on I'll Work For Your Love, in which Bruce takes a great line like:
"Pour me a drink Theresa/In one of those glasses you dust off"
and ruins it with this strained follow up:
"And I'll watch the bones on your back/Like the Stations of the Cross"
Maybe the true believers know what he's talking about, but I certainly don't. The whole song is like this; revelation, the garden, etc.. I guess all this means that the girl is his religion, or savior, but the analogy flirts with pretentiousness and grandiosity.
At the same time, the generic sound renders some schmaltz out of another good song like Your Own Worst Enemy, where Bruce might as well be Creed as he bellows the last lines. The whole band is mashed into one compressed whole, with only the occasional solo for a clear glimpse of the players so many of us have come to love over the years. Which is truly a shame because the band is kicking ass on this record. The power of the performances will move a million copies all on their own. One of the few songs that has a little space in it is also one of the best, Long Walk Home, which, unlike Last To Die, is actually a pretty good protest song. Bruce here is miles past My Hometown when he tells us "the diner was shuttered and boarded/with a sign that just said 'gone'" and he sums up the former greatness of his America as a place where "nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone". Yes, exactly right. And it certainly will be a "long walk home" getting back there, if it's even possible. Bruce may be an eternal optimist, but 2004 knocked that out of a lot of us, and he's no exception.
The point I'm trying to make is that this could have been the great record David Fricke claims it is, if only the sound was opened up and the lyrics followed the music, which is direct and accessible. This may be his best rock record since Born In The USA (I think I prefer Lucky Town), but that's not saying much. Frankly I suspect his heart is in the quiet acoustic stuff, but it's still great to hear him pick up the old Esquire once in a while. For sheer entertainment value, I'll rank this higher than my gut tells me to. But I've officially logged my complaints.8 October, 2007 - 09:48 — Alan Shulman