So if things are falling apart so rapidly and miserably, why do Springsteen and his band seem to be having so much damn fun? There’s an odd ebullience to several of the arrangements that masks the songs’ personalities and allows them to pass as mere party tunes. Even as Springsteen sings of doomed love affairs, bodies and broken heroes returning home, and the diner “shuttered and boarded with a sign that just said ‘Gone,’ ” Magic skews buoyant and nostalgic. Only on a few songs do Bruce and band meet on common ground to pound his words home. There’s no way not to absorb the blatant anti-war sentiment of the scorching “Last To Die,” the album’s most overtly political song (its lyrical hook is based on a line from a Vietnam-era speech by John Kerry: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”), the disappearing sense of security of “Your Own Worst Enemy,” or the justified grief of “Gypsy Biker”: “To the dead it don’t matter much ’bout who is wrong or right.” Here the sound of the band is with him every step of the way.
But they aren’t as successful at nailing the more internalized sentiments of “Long Walk Home,” “You’ll Be Comin’ Down,” and “I’ll Work for Your Love.” Oversized, revved-up foundations obscure the intricacies of the interpersonal relationships Springsteen has laid out. And “Radio Nowhere,” the arena-ready single that opens Magic, though packed with clanging multi-layered guitars, screaming sax, and a sing-along-able chorus that would be perfect for classic-rock radio if such a thing still existed, is so mired in sonic muck that it goes nowhere.
Chalk up at least some of this disconnect to Brendan O’Brien’s production, which is often so slicked down and smooshed together that it doesn’t just airbrush the band’s jagged edges, it sandblasts them. O’Brien, who also produced The Rising, treats the E Street Band more like previous clients Pearl Jam, Korn, and Audioslave than like previous client Bob Dylan. They’re given little breathing room, a commodity that Springsteen was generous in affording his supporting players on their earlier, more timeless efforts. Perhaps that’s why, though Magic is touted as the grand return of the E Street Band, the album is credited solely to Springsteen. They’re a patient lot, these E-Streeters, but after lying low for half a decade, sitting out the drowsiness and faux Okie persona of the acoustic Devils & Dust, and the playful sideshow WeShall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, you’d think they might get to share the spotlight.
It’s disarming, this gloss that obscures the cracks and blemishes. The keyboardists, Roy Bittan and Danny Federici, and Clemons on sax have always driven the band, and though there are familiar licks here, that’s part of the problem: they appear to have nothing new to say. Fans can have fun playing where-have-I-heard-that-before, but they’ll be hard-pressed to discover contributions that aren’t subservient to the leader. Drummer Max Weinberg, previously one of the band’s most inventive cogs, has morphed into an indiscriminate basher, sacrificing his usual subtlety for an overbearing, crashing assault that O’Brien is happy to exploit by mixing it to shrillness.