Listen while your read: Open up the Springsteen Magic webpage in a new window (then click on a track)
In some ways, Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, Magic, which sees the reuniting of the E. Street Band, comes at a high point in Springsteen’s recent career, and this means there are high expectations. Three recent contributions contribute to these high expectations.
First, just recently Springsteen had a very well done solo album of mostly acoustic-based songs, Devil’s and Dust (2005). In many ways, that album represents Springsteen’s great skill in writing and performing emotionally direct and vivid tunes, and in character sketching (on which see my discussion of Welcome to Asbury Park, N.J.). Second, Magic is also the first E. Street Band album since the very coherent and moving album of 2002, The Rising. That album did an amazing job of looking at a crucial and tragic event, 9/11, from a variety of perspectives without terribly oversimplifying the meaning of events such as that. Third, Magic follows up on the foot-stomping, whisky-drinking tribute album to the folk music of Pete Seeger: We Shall Overcome (2006).
How does the newest album match up to this trio of somewhat diverse contributions? There is a sense in which Magic is The Rising part 2, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, Magic is clearly a solid, well-performed rock album that is superior to most other efforts in this area, and I would therefore recommend it. On the other, there are some ways in which this album does not live up to the high expectations and lacks a coherency in theme when compared to The Rising.
There are a number of lively rock tunes on this album beyond “Radio nowhere”, the first single. “You’ll be comin’ down”, “Livin’ in the future”, “I’ll work for your love”, and “Last to die” are all somewhat fast-paced and well-performed tunes with some nuance. However, there are other upbeat pieces that seem clouded. In particular, “Gypsy biker” is difficult to listen to or discern. I’m all for well-placed, heavy percussion within the overall structure of a song, but in this case the drumming assault seems without meaning and becomes annoying to my ears as the song progresses. Springsteen’s vocals and any other instrumentation begin to disappear in these murky waters. “Last to die” is apparently a song of despair with little hope (other songs supply that) which asks: “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake. . . Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break. Who’ll be the last to die”.
There are also some slower paced songs that provide limited variety here and highlight the sounds of piano and (yes, this is an E. Street Band album) chimes (which can also be heard on the livelier songs). “Girls in their summer clothes” is an enjoyable series of vignettes of small town life. The title track, “Magic”, is a slow moving (perhaps too slow) dark song, primarily of despair. The highlight among these, in my view, is the final “Devil’s Arcade” with its slow build. Here the partially despairing lyrics are countered by the clearly hopeful overall effect of the music.
As with many Springsteen albums, including The Rising, the lyrics are stories of both despair and hope, because they are stories of real life. Though I have not yet been captured by the poetry in the way I have been with some of the acoustic albums including Devils and Dust, the writing on this album is generally good.
That’s all I’ll say for now, and perhaps I’ll supplement this review as I listen to this album for a longer stretch. Often my opinions change with more listens. Music I don’t like on the first few listens sometimes become my favourite down the road, and vice versa.