The E Street band is back with Bruce for his latest album, “Magic”, released this week on Columbia Records. Springsteen’s last two records have been somber, stripped-down, acoustic works, but “Magic” marks a return to the straight-ahead, up-tempo rock ‘n’ roll upon which Springsteen built his career.
It’s good music for a long drive down the Jersey Turnpike, or for kicking back with your parents, reminiscing about how great life was in the early eighties. Uh, right…
You don’t spend much time reminiscing with the fam. And come to think of it, you were hardly a flicker in your parents’ procreative fantasies last time Bruce Springsteen had a major radio hit. So why does this record matter to you?
Bruce Springsteen matters because he is a member of the small pantheon of living, working rock legends who can put out any music they want. And the marketing wonks and corporate handlers who run the music industry can’t do anything to interfere. A few years ago, Columbia Records reportedly gave Springsteen $100 million to keep him on the label. Springsteen’s enormous clout gives him unlimited creative freedom. And there’s far too little of that in today’s music industry.
Last month, the world saw the ugly truth about the modern music business when we witnessed Britney Spears’ meltdown on the VMAs; the big labels have been promoting junk like this for too long. However, real artists ARE out there, and Springsteen is one of them. But he should push himself more. He is capable of making a better record than he gave us this time.
It all comes down to the songwriting. Springsteen has written many great tunes over the course of his career, but all in all, the songs on “Magic” fail to connect. His lyrics have always been a bit vague, but after reading them over and over, should one still be wondering what the heck he’s talking about? This isn’t T.S. Eliot; it’s rock ‘n’ roll. Esoteric songwriting may sometimes be profound, but most of the time it’s just lazy.
Overall, the sound is fuller than most Springsteen records — there are even cellos and violins here and there. Steve van Zandt, with his bluesy (if understated) guitar work, and the rest of the E Street band deliver the hearty, driving American sound that Springsteen fans have come to love. Springsteen has a way of sounding haggard and tired but at the same time perpetually youthful. He hasn’t changed much in 35 years.
There are a couple of standout tracks. The title track is a haunting ballad: It voices the sinister delight of a magician who controls the perceptions and realities of others. It’s one of several tracks on “Magic” that is open to political interpretation. (Mr. “Born in the U.S.A.” is no Republican, folks.) Another solid number, “Your Own Worst Enemy” is marvelously textured, featuring the grunty Springsteen practically crooning. Who knew the Boss could sing with vibrato?
Upon reaching the end of the album, don’t yank out your headphones too quickly — “Terry’s Song,” the stripped-down hidden track follows and turns out to be the best on the record. The final page of the album insert includes a note of memoriam for Springsteen’s “friend and partner of 23 years,” his personal assistant Terry Magovern. Springsteen’s love for his friend is powerfully evident, and he — at last — finds something profound to say. It’s a marvelous tribute.
Springsteen has been around for 35 years and he may be running out of things to say. Yet, he does occasionally achieve genius, especially during the more intimate moments on the record. That’s something worth paying attention to — and even (gasp!) paying for.