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Bruce Springsteen - Magic Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 November 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    7
sound:    6.5
released:    2007
label:    Interscope
reviewer:    Matt Fink

ImageIt was a strange moment in the history of rock and roll when John Fogerty was taken to court for making music that sounded too much like his previous work. The case hinged on the hook of 1985’s “The Old Man Down the Road,” a track that Fogerty’s old record label Fantasy said sounded too much like a song he wrote for Creedence Clearwater Revival called “Run Through the Jungle.” And while the lawsuit was essentially frivolous, the end result of a decade of contentious relationships between old associates, it brought up an interesting question. Can an artist sound too much like himself? At which point does he simply become a caricature of his previous career highlights? With all the work that goes into developing a personal style, is it fair to expect an artist to then drift away what he does best? With every album since his classic Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen provides answers.

Ever since 1982’s stripped-down Nebraska, Springsteen’s answer to his creative dilemma is to essentially alternate between deeply intimate solo albums and his more rollicking releases with a backing band. Following his rousing tribute to folk icon Pete Seeger on 2006’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions and 2005’s largely solo Devils & Dust, Springsteen is once again ready to reclaim the helm of the E Street Band. Yet, unlike 2002’s The Rising, his cathartic meditation on post-911 America, this time around Springsteen doesn’t have a uniting thread or an explicit reason to keep his chin up and hope for better days. Instead, Magic is a far more emotionally conflicted and melancholy release, as if he has weathered the storm to find that things haven’t gotten better at all. To that extent, Magic is a far more complex and nuanced album.

Kicking off the album with the taut guitar lines and sing-along choruses of “Radio Nowhere,” a restless call for the like-minded to rise up and stay together in such fractious times, the Boss wastes no time in setting the album’s desperate tone. And from there, things only get darker. “You’ll Be Coming Down” follows in short order, wrapping a tale of shattered optimism in a wistfully swaying melody and typically triumphant thick mix of gritty guitars and chiming keyboards. Even the celebratory “Livin’ in the Future,” a joyfully bouncing groove with celebratory sax bleats and roller rink organ, strikes an oddly self-conscious tone, with Springsteen only finding solace in escaping into fantasy. Sounding angry even when he’s trying to be happy, Springsteen naturally turns his frustration toward the world’s political climate. Pulling few punches, the starkly dirge-like title track is a cynical cataloging of a magician’s tricks, casting the narrator as an exploitative huckster who preys on the good will of others. Even more blunt is “Last to Die,” with a dark ribbon of guitar cutting through a layer of strings as Springsteen laments the high price that will paid by family of the final soldier who will “die for a mistake.” Here, as throughout the album, Springsteen does what he always has, wisely steering clear of personal attacks and shrill self-righteousness, instead focusing on the undeniable human drama at the heart of the debate surrounding the Iraq War.

That said, Springsteen still manages to turn inward, finding a few of the album’s strongest tracks in the process. From his unflinching promise of fidelity in “I’ll Work for Your Love” to his shuffling lament for the loss of small town constancy in “Long Walk Home,” he finds an uneasy comfort in the safety of home of hearth while admitting that even those things won’t last forever. Even more picturesque is “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” a track built on airy synths and hearty acoustic guitar strums as Springsteen paints a word picture of couples walking hand-in-hand, breezy front porches, and diners on the edge of town. Still, even here he’s largely an observer, as the girls all pass him by.

At the end of the day, it’s certainly worth mentioning that Springsteen’s music hasn’t changed appreciably since Born in the U.S.A. confirmed his status as the conscience of American music, and Magic is more or less exactly what he has been doing since he came roaring out of New Jersey in the early ‘70s. Now, wiser but no less idealistic, he seems to need to believe in magic more than ever, something that seems easier for him to communicate to others than to believe himself. Ultimately, the themes explored on Magic are the stuff of great albums, and yet Magic isn’t quite as transcendent as it seems it should be. Most of that is due to the fact that Springsteen sounds so much like you’d expect him to that it’s impossible to be in any way surprised by him at this point (though the sleek harpsichord and strings of “Your Own Worst Enemy” comes close). Of course, getting another strong Springsteen album is nothing to sneeze at, and this ranks in the better half of his 15 studio albums. Ultimately, he might be guilty of self-parody at points, but nobody plays Bruce Springsteen better than the Boss himself.

Produced by Brendan O’Brien, Magic is given a sparkling, modern rock sheen that detracts from its immediacy somewhat. Muscular and punchy, the album hits hard and with precision, but the bright textures distract from the somber tone of the writing. With Springsteen front and center in the mix, the rest of the E Street players are pushed to the margins, sounding as if they’re being held back from truly shifting into the extra gear that defines their best work. Even so, the album has a big, multi-faceted sound that will sound good whatever the equipment, with the tiniest subtleties only revealed through close listening and good speakers.

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