VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen, "Radio Nowhere"
On Magic (Columbia), Bruce Springsteen’s first album with the E Street Band in five years, not everything is what it seems. As with the sleight of hand described in the title track, there’s what you think you’re getting and what you really get. If you think that the album is just a collection of random new Springsteen songs tailored for the returning E Street Band, or that its title is generic (All Music Guide lists more than 70 albums called Magic), you’re not paying enough attention to the magician.
There are layers to each of Magic’s songs, and the trick is to uncover them. The exuberant “Livin’ in the Future,” it turns out, is about livin’ in the present, even as Clarence Clemons’s “10th Avenue Freeze-Out”–ditto sax solo points to the past. “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” with its Spectorian production and Wilsonian melody, may suggest an idyllic world fit for a spinning 45, but “My jacket’s on, I’m out the door/And tonight I’m gonna burn this town down” offers anything but. On “Magic,” a sucker is still born every minute: “I got a shiny saw blade, all I need’s a volunteer/I’ll cut you in half while you’re smiling ear to ear,” Springsteen proposes, but before you can even raise your hand, he warns, “Trust none of what you hear and less of what you see.”
Magic is less strident than 2002’s The Rising, the previous album featuring the E Street Band, but in many ways it’s a sequel — words like “fear” and “dead” and “blood” still tarnish Springsteen’s landscape, and now they’re joined by “mistake” and “crumbled” and “lies.” “You can’t sleep at night, you can’t dream your dream” opens “Your Own Worst Enemy,” sung in a Roy Orbison croon against a brooding string section, and “Your flag it flew so high, it drifted into the sky” closes the song. The hope and pride and oneness of 9/12 have given way to paranoia, distrust, and disgruntlement; the shattering sense of loss reflected in The Rising is palpable, but there’s been no resolution, only polarization and sullenness. “There’s bodies hangin’ in the trees,” Springsteen sings as “Magic” fades, but he’s accepting, not outraged: “This is what will be, this is what will be,” he repeats. The darkness on the edge of town now shrouds Main Street, too.
Magic’s characters aren’t defeated, they’re just tired. Tired of being lied to, tired of feeling helpless and insignificant and tossed away. In the new America, it’s business as usual — except we’re embittered now, defenseless, cynical, and not nearly as angry as we should be. We’re handcuffed and bound, locked inside a box and tossed overboard with no idea how to get out.
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.