If you’ve been absorbing the various critical and fan accounts of Bruce Springsteen’s brilliant new record, Magic (including my own, which you can read here), you may feel torn about just what kind of expectations you’re supposed to bring when the CD arrives in stores Tuesday. Is it a pure, giddy blast of band-oriented fun — a grand, spirited, hard-rocking return to the E Street glory days that finally gives the fans what they’ve been wanting ever since Born in the U.S.A.? Or is it a dark, somber, even grimly political piece of work that soberly zeroes in on disillusionment and the downfall of American idealism?
Well, geez, can’t it be both? It is, and that, really, is the magic of Magic. But fans will see in it what they want to see in it. Friday morning, playing a live set on Today, Springsteen introduced the new song “Livin’ in the Future” with a long rant that started on the jocular side, before he veered off into a laundry list of wrongs — “rendition, illegal wiretapping, voter suppression, no habeas corpus, the neglect of our great city of New Orleans and her people, an attack on the Constitution, and the loss of our best young men and women in a tragic war” — to which the deceptively celebrative-sounding song is really alluding. “This is a song about things that shouldn’t happen here happening here,” he told the crowd. You can see footage of the performance if you go to this page at MSNBC.com. But ironically, on that same page is a link to MSNBC’s review of the album, headlined “The Boss abandons the message albums of the past to have fun with friends,” bizarrely claiming that you won’t need to worry about any of that pesky social consciousness stuff this time around. Ironic, right?
There’s so much substance to Magic that, in addition to my A-grade review, I thought I’d pop up on PopWatch to offer a track-by-track preview of the album:
1. “Radio Nowhere.” Everyone already knows this one, sinceit’s been available free online as a teaser for weeks. The maincomplaint fans have had about it: It fades out too soon — but theentire album has that economical, leave-’em-wanting-more ethos. Here,Springsteen sets up the themes of searching and disillusionment thatwill characterize the album without tieing them too strictly to topicalevents (yet). The E Street Band’s phalanx of guitarists has probablynever indulged in such a three-pronged attack before. And you’ll noticethat a key change kicks in at the beginning of Clarence Clemons’ saxbreak — only to have the tune revert back when he’s done. Actually,that same Big Man key-change gambit is pulled on the next two songs,too. But (speaking of magic) even if you know how the trick is done, itstill doesn’t ruin the effect.
2. “You’ll Be Comin’ Down.” Unless Springsteen is gettingeven more allegorical on us than we imagine, this is one of the songsthat isn’t about America, but just an American girl. But it’s no ode,as such; in the great tradition of artists like Dylan and Costellotaking the piss out of an in-vogue beauty who’s gotten a little too bigfor her britches, he warns: “You’ll be fine as long as your pretty faceholds out/Then it’s gonna get pretty cold out.”
3. “Livin’ in the Future.” If any song here is destined tobecome a concert favorite, it’s this one, which fans who’ve gotten anearly listen have compared to “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” (even thoughthere’s no horn section on this or any other Magic track). ButBruce hasn’t been making any bones about the fact that the lyrics aredesigned as a distinct political critique, and one fan already postedafter the Today appearance that Bruce’s “rant” had “ruined’Livin’ in the Future’ for me forever.” You could still take this as asong about a relationship gone wrong, but it seems clear that, if youget a ticket for his coming tour, this is going to be the number wherehe does a little preaching and lets his progressive freak flag fly.
4. “Your Own Worst Enemy.” Self-loathing never sounded sogorgeous as in this, the first true timeless classic of the album. Thestring arrangement might have you drawing comparisons as far back asthe Left Banke’s “Walk Away, Renee,” though you’ll hear some harmoniesredolent of the Beach Boys when it gets to the bridge, too. But don’tlet the prettiness fool you: This is the perfect song, when you realizethat you’ve completely #@&*-ed up, to flog yourself by. What sinsthe narrator has committed that convince him he’s his “own worst enemy”remain unclear, though there are hints that it may have been some kindof personal infidelity or betrayal (“Once the family felt secure/Nowno one’s very sure”). It’s chillingly lonely… and just a little bittranscendent, too, as the realization kicks in that — OMG!!!! — Bruceis back to writing unabashed Pop Music here.
5. “Gypsy Biker.” Maybe the saddest song he’s ever written —and one of the fiercest and hardest rocking. On first listen, you mightnot catch that the biker of the title is, in fact, a dead soldier whosebuddies have gathered to celebrate him. A gleaming bike does show up,which the friends take out into the desert and set on fire, as a sortof funeral pyre. If that isn’t “Born to Run” all grown up and gone tohell, I don’t know what is. When the guitar solo kicks in, it’swrenchingly elegiac in a deep, primal way, almost like a dog howling tomourn its late master.
6. “Girls in Their Summer Clothes.” Suddenly, Springsteen’sno longer mourning a deceased soldier but his own lost youth, in theclosest thing to an escapist song on the album. Fresh from a breakup,the narrator heads out to do some girl-watching, and if he might beoverly optimistic about the chances of one of those sweet young thingsstopping to heal him, the sense of longing and tactile descriptions ofa lively street scene are still intensely romantic. The Phil Spector/Pet Soundsinfluences return in a big way for the second time on the album, andyou may hear a hint of the Who’s “The Kids are Alright” in the verse’smelody line, too. If they’d reissued Born to Run with this as abonus track, claiming it was a long-lost outtake that had always beenmeant to follow the title song in the running order, you’d haveprobably swallowed it.
7. “I’ll Work for Your Love.” The one truly upbeat lyrichere, and the most peculiar. Springsteen serenades a barmaid namedTheresa, with devotion that crosses the line into pure worship — somuch so that the verses are filled with hilariously over-the-topreligious imagery. (“I’ll watch the bones in your back like thestations of the cross… The pages of Revelation lie open in your emptyeyes of blue… tears they fill the rosary, at your feet my temple ofbones.”) Some fans have read into this that the song might actually be aboutSt. Theresa, but don’t take the Catholic imagery too far, kids — thisis the album’s one moment of pure, unbridled, joyful lust. And it’s Magic‘s fourth instant classic in a row.
8. “Magic.” You could almost divide the album into two parts,with tracks 1-7 being in a classic E Street vein and 8-12 (counting theunlisted bonus track) more closely resembling one of his solo albums.Certainly things shift more overtly toward the political at this point,though you’d be right to point out that the earlier “Livin’ in theFuture” and “Gypsy Biker” lyrically belong in this camp, as well. Thetitle track is really its only slow one, as Springsteen takes on thecharacter of an apparently sinister sleight-of-hand man who may or maynot have deep connections with the current administration. It’s not oneof the album’s great songs, but it is invaluable in bridging the twotypes of magic on the album — the enchantment of being out on thestreet (“Girls in Their Summer Clothes” has a reference to “MagicAvenue”), versus the so-called “black arts” of politics and war.
9. “Last to Die.” The chorus borrows a famous line fromVietnam-era John Kerry: “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?” Asthe most polemical song on the album, it’s in danger of stating itsintent a bit too literally, compared with the artful double entendresfound elsewhere in Magic‘s social commentary. Yet the personalimagery strewn through the song brings it back to earth and saves it: Acouple seem to be on a road trip with their kids, experiencing newsreports of the war along the way to “Truth or Consequences” (presumablyboth the New Mexico town and a more metaphorical place). And it’spossible to imagine that the references to untended dead bodies referto skeletons in their own closet as well as, literally, the Iraqsituation.
10. “Long Walk Home.” There’s a kind of magic realism at workhere, as Springsteen walks through familiar hometown streets, full ofsignposts that should be comforting, and yet finds that the people are”all rank strangers to me.” That’s a brilliant reference to the StanleyBrothers’ gospel song “Rank Strangers” (covered by Dylan on a 1988album), where the narrator, newly beholden to God, returns to a homebase that no longer means anything to him. Only in this case, it’spresumably divisions over the War on Terror that have the narratorfeeling estranged from the people he once loved. This is the one songon the album that Springsteen had previously premiered live, on his Seeger Sessionstour, and there (as you’ll see if you dig up the bootleg video onYouTube), it went on for a couple more angrier verses. But it endsperfectly now, with the character remembering some once-comfortingwords from his father — “You know that flag flying over thecourthouse/Means certain things are set in stone/Who we are, what we’lldo and what we won’t” — and just leaving the indictment that mightfollow that unspoken and implicit.
11. “Devil’s Arcade.” Interpretations of this lyric — the onetrue story-song on the album — vary. But it seems to be sung by a womanto a soldier recovering (or not) from grave wounds suffered in abombing in Iraq: She remembers their first fumbling sexual experiencesand looks forward to a sensual, sunny breakfast when, once again, he’llbe able to experience Morning in America. We don’t know whether herhope in his recovery is misplaced or not.
12. “Terry’s Song.” The previous song makes such a stunningclimax that you’d logically want it to end there, but as a celebrativefuneral song, this unlisted bonus acoustic track certainly does makefor an appropriate segue out of the hospital-set “Devil’s Arcade.””When they made you, brother, they broke the mold,” Bruce sings, in anumber bound to be played at countless funerals in the coming decades.And just when you thought the mold had been broken on albums as greatas Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen is back, combiningthat early spirit with a level of writing that can only come from realmaturation, ready to show us that he can not only prove it all nightbut prove it all life.
Have you heard this material yet, through leaks or legit means? Doyou have your own take on these songs? Take one step up, PopWatchers,and tell us know whether the new songs are working the same magic onyou.