BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: MAGIC (2007)
1) Radio Nowhere; 2) You'll Be Coming Down; 3) Livin' In The Future; 4) Your Own Worst Enemy; 5) Gypsy Biker; 6) Girls In Their Summer Clothes; 7) I'll Work For Your Love; 8) Magic; 9) Last To Die; 10) Long Walk Home; 11) Devil's Arcade; 12) Terry's Song.
Please take a good, hard look at the grumpy old guy on the front sleeve and tell me if you notice any «magic» there. Come on now, I want you to admit, right here and now, that «magic» is the first word that springs to your mind when you look at that picture. No? Not really? Not even the slightest association? Now listen to the music on this album. More than likely, you will have to admit that the mood of music — autumnal, rough, gritty, grumpy, sulky, etc. — more or less suits the facial expression and even the tint of the front cover. So where's the magic?..
Really, even though after The Rising the Boss was untouchable from the critical angle, it is as if that record just sucked all the spirit of adventure out of the old guy. Magic is totally Springsteen by-numbers, as pattern-dominated and monotonous as The Rising was unpredictable and clearly inspired. All songs are brand new (no outtakes this time), and all songs feature the E Street Band, but essentially this is the E Street Band equivalent of Devils & Dust — the Boss is not really trying on this one. Of course, it gives the songs and the arrangements an air of spontaneity and looseness, and the songs do have their points and all; and yet, there is nothing new.
This isn't quite the equivalent of Human Touch or Lucky Town, though: in his respectable position of elder statesman, the Boss sees it as his duty now to write songs about big issues on a much-more-than-personal level, and there is plenty of comment here on the current state of things in America and the world at large, mostly concentrating, of course, on wartime issues (but sometimes also on ʽGirls In Their Summer Clothesʼ, because, well, war is over there and girls in summer clothes are over here, after all). In this way, Magic does look like a sequel to The Rising, and is perhaps best appreciated from this angle — only where The Rising was a strong electric jolt to put the nation back on its feet, Magic is the sound of asthenia setting in, a depiction of the directionless meandering of the nation, unable to find new cures for old problems.
"This is Radio Nowhere / Is there anybody alive out there?" is sort of the leitmotif of the entire album. It's a decent song, for which Bruce has adopted a crunchy, but muted and gray alt-rock guitar tone, and that tone is a frequent guest here, suggesting the usual power and energy of the E Street Band, but with something gone rotten in the process. From there on, it is the usual 4/4 snare beat and the well-worn mid-tempo without end, grooves that have been recycled for the dozenth time and only occasionally salvaged by fresh vocal hooks — faithfully holding up that grim, thoroughly non-magical mood, as if the man were all set on telling us: "Just get out of here, I'm depressed like hell and you want me to wreck my brain trying to come up with inventive songwriting? Why don't you do something inventive for a change — like go out there and vote the Republicans out of office, for instance?"
Which, you know, is a fine enough imaginative stance that I can buy, but uninventive songwriting leads to uninventive reviewing, and therefore I will just say that there are three more songs that stand out in various ways. ʽGirls In Their Summer Clothesʼ is a Springsteen-ized power pop song, with echoes of Phil Spector and Motown, where he actually tries to sing instead of grumble (to the same mid-tempo beats, though). ʽLong Walk Homeʼ has the album's catchiest chorus and may have been seriously influenced by the Seeger sessions with that folksy refrain ("hey pretty darling, don't wait up for me, gonna be a long walk home" sure sounds like it belongs in an Irish barroom song). And ʽDevil's Arcadeʼ is the only tune here that seems like a Rising outtake — with its ominously bombastic guitar, keyboard, and string overlays, it almost matches the epic peaks of that record, though even in this song all that desperation, poured into melancholic melodicity, feels somewhat stiff, numb and frozen. But maybe it's just because the man's voice got lower, and all the instruments have to accommodate.
Anyway, it is possible to look at Magic both ways — as simply another by-the-book uninspired batch of same-sounding, deeply derivative Bruce songs, or as an anti-climactic companion to The Rising, reflecting how the shock, grief, and decisive «start it all over again» attitude got bogged down in stupidity, backwardness, and disillusionment, with the music following suit. In both cases, though, this is an album conceived, arranged, and performed without too much energy or inspiration — either intentionally or unintentionally, I don't really care. It's not bad, but I could definitely stand a bit more diversity in melodies and arrangements. Heck, I could even use another rewrite of a ʽCadillac Ranchʼ or a ʽRamrodʼ for a change — this monotonousness could be justified if the sonic atmosphere or the melodies were outstanding, but as it is, fourty seven minutes of Springsteen being depressed over the Iraq war and God knows what else is real hard to take. I wish I could say "Oh well, at least this ain't another stab at Nebraska", but fact is, not even the E Street Band can help out here. Even The Big Man is playing his sax solos in a completely perfunctory manner — like, "oh yeah, here we play like we did in ʽJunglelandʼ". Not good.