CK Retro Review: Magic by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: May 19, 2014
It’s probably too simplistic to say that Magic, released in 2007, was Bruce Springsteen’s best album since Tunnel Of Love, simply because the many stylistic turns he took in the 20 years interim make it a little like comparing rocking apples to folky oranges. What can be said is that it’s the most overt throwback to the classic E Street Band sound, toughened by lyrics that shunned nostalgia for a clear-eyed look at sleight of hand, perpetrated either on a nationwide scale or just between two people, and its insidious effects. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “I’ll Work For Your Love”- The bad: Tortured metaphors and similes in the verses and a too-blunt arrangement. The good: Excellent refrain and a classic Roy Bittan piano intro. The good wins out by a few lengths, and the fact that this is the weakest thing here should tell you how strong Magic is as a whole.
11. “Gypsy Biker”- There are obvious similarities here to songs like “Born In The U.S.A.” and “Shut Out The Light”, but the difference here is that the focus is on the devastation on all those left behind when a loved one or town citizen doesn’t make it back home, either literally or mentally, from a war. Some lonesome harmonica is the most memorable part of the otherwise routine instrumental backing.
10. “You’ll Be Comin’ Down”- It’s rare to see Springsteen get as snippy as he does here to the person he’s addressing in a song, which is why you could conceivably read the “pretty face” in this song to be some larger target (maybe a politician) than just a girl living on borrowed time in the limelight. It comes off like a nastier “When You’re Alone.” Steven Van Zandt delivers some skyscraping harmonies which lend to the 60’s feel.
9. “Last To Die”- Springsteen often talks about how he likes to mix the personal and political in his material, but he goes down that road to a fault here. Instead of deepening the meaning, he muddles what could have been a more focused meditation on a fading romance with current events references. Nonetheless, the minor-key power of the music is undeniable, allowing you to forgive the lyrical confusion.
8. “Long Way Home”- I would have preferred this one to stay as stark as it is in the beginning, the open spaces in the music conjuring the distance between ideals and reality, a distance that haunts the lonely narrator. I also liken this one to “Land Of Hope And Dreams” in that they both feel too consciously anthemic, like you can hear the work put in to get them there. I always prefer my Springsteen, and music in general, to sound like it was effortless. You can’t argue with the song’s sentiment though, that the thousand tiny betrayals that we endure on micro and macro levels can really put us asunder, far from any place of comfort or reason.
7. “Magic”- You can pick whoever your own personal boogeyman might be and imagine the narrator in that way. Springsteen probably is frying some big fish with his metaphor, artfully sustained, that equates large-scale lying with the fakery of a small-time magician. “I’ll cut you in half,” Springsteen sings, “While you’re smiling ear to ear.” By the end, there are bodies in the trees and fire rampaging close by. It’s a downright chilling story, not exactly a pick-me-up, but certainly worthy of being told.
6. “Devil’s Arcade”- If I had a nit to pick with this song, it’s how Springsteen is maybe a bit too fussy in holding back the meat and potatoes of the story. The tale of a soldier whose body, and possibly his mind, is broken and the woman who prays for some semblance of normality for him should probably just be told, not hinted at. The song is still quite stirring though, from the somber cello at the start to the passionate refrain of “The beat of your heart,” the woman repeating it over and over as if she’s willing it to continue.
5. “Livin’ In The Future”- The music is such a throwback to classic days that, had another band perpetrated it, they could have been accused of plagiarism. Springsteen knows the strutting rhythm and Clarence Clemons air-splitting sax would have that effect, all the better to then undercut everyone with a tale that deftly mixes personal defeat with overarching chaos. The chorus suggests a kind of mind trick to try to get through it all; might as well put your mind on E Street while everything else goes all to hell. Enjoyable subversion from the Boss.
4. “Terry’s Song”- What comes through the most in this workmanlike tribute is the genuine affection Springsteen clearly had for his late friend Terry Magovern. He doesn’t try to canonize him. He just reveals his humanity, flaws and all, and how that humanity made him unique from the rest of humanity, if that makes any sense. I’ll take this over a windy old eulogy any day.
3. “Radio Nowhere”- This is one example where Brendan O’Brien’s occasional tendency to make his productions a bit too thick and airless actually pays off, because it plays into the narrator’s desperate pleas for human contact amidst the density and noise. Springsteen’s exhortations work as a complaint about the lack of human connection in the modern world, or they work as a guy belly-aching about the lousy music (or lack of music) on his local radio station. Speaking of radio, maybe Tommy Tutone snuck into Bruce’s subconscious somewhere along the line in the 80’s, because he regurgitates that one-hot wonder’s riff, albeit with a whole lot more spit and vinegar. This is as fierce as he and the band has ever sounded.
2. “Girls In Their Summer Clothes”- What if one of Springsteen’s charming young heroes from the early streetlife serenades never left the boulevard? Would he still be charming? Or maybe a little pathetic? Those are the questions that loom over this gorgeous slice of 60’s-inspired pop, all yearning violins and familiar yet poignant chord changes. By the way, I think pathetic might be too harsh, because there is something endearing in his willingness to dust himself off after what is probably his umpteenth broken heart. “Love’s a fool’s dance,” Bruce sings. “I ain’t got much sense/But I still got my feet.” Those lines form a universal sentiment, so if he’s a loser, then we’re all losers right along with him.
1. “Your Own Worst Enemy”- Since we’re following throughlines in Springsteen’s career, here is the same dude from “Darkness On The Edge Of Town,” remarried with children, tamping down his self-destructive urges as you would an overstuffed garbage can, until it gets to be too much and all that filth oozes out. And we present his tale in a chiming, baroque pop arrangement that sounds like Jeff Lynne producing The Left Banke. It shouldn’t work, but the incisive characterization in such short potent strokes, combines with the irresistible music, makes this one of the most underrated tracks in the man’s career.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, but you can pre-order it now at all major online booksellers.)