- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Bruce Springsteen


Columbia Records

Bruce Springsteen introduces his new album, “Magic,” with a question — “Is there anybody alive out there?” — that he’s been asking audiences for years.

In concert, the inquiry elicits a mass shriek of affirmation.

But on the album’s driving rocker and lead single “Radio Nowhere,” Mr. Springsteen doesn’t sound so sure; the song imagines the “last lone American night,” a cultural wilderness of dead radio dials, dark holes and misty rain.

“Radio Nowhere” sets a “Dude, where’s my country?” tone that lasts through the penultimate anthem “Long Walk Home,” where a bewildered, Freehold, N.J.-bound Mr. Springsteen seems to lose all sense of bearing, local or national:

You know that flag flying over the courthouse

Means certain things are set in stone

Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t

In fact, the title track of “Magic,” Mr. Springsteen’s first album with the E Street Band since 2002’s “The Rising,” is an allusion to the rhetorical prestidigitation of the powers that be.

But it is also, happily, an expression — all too intermittent — of Mr. Springsteen’s abiding infatuation with great American pop music.

The album is Mr. Springsteen’s most potent concentration of melodies since 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.” The panoramic pop production “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” is a giddy evocation of “Pet Sounds”-era Beach Boys, a sonic experiment that Mr. Springsteen’s burdened baritone has trouble lifting off.

Far sturdier is the Dylanesque “I’ll Work for Your Love,” which opens with the familiar, brilliant peal of Roy Bittan’s piano and Danny Federeci’s glockenspiel, with the latter-day addition of sweet fiddle from Soozie Tyrell.

The song is full of clunky Catholic metaphors (“I’ll watch the bones in your back like the Stations of the Cross,” for example), but its simple central vow — “What others may want for free/I’ll work for your love” — is quintessential Bruce: romance as vocation.

“Magic” quotes classic Springsteen as often as it does classic pop. The R&B-inflected; rocker “Livin’ in the Future,” with its major-relative-minor progression, is a dead ringer for “Tenth Avenue Freezeout.” And “Gypsy Biker” has a windswept harmonic howl that briefly conjures up Mr. Springsteen’s “Nebraska” era.

Springsteen sleuths already have spotted a line in the latter — “We pulled your cycle out of the garage and polished up the chrome” — that’s adapted from a “Born in the U.S.A.” outtake, “Shut Out the Light,” about a Vietnam War casualty. In Mr. Springsteen’s eyes, at least, “Gypsy Biker” was an easy updating for the Iraq era.

For all its buoyancy, “Livin’ in the Future” is actually another finger in the eye of America’s radio-nowhere-ness, paradoxically suggesting that what was once morally unthinkable has come to pass. The intermingling of doom and hopeful defiance is a familiar balancing act for Mr. Springsteen; in his mythos, you can’t have one without the other.

The second half of the album is laden with more or less explicitly political tracks such as the title track, a retread of “The Rising’s” “Paradise”; and the strident “Last to Die,” which oversells its anger by half; and the slow-to-build “The Devil’s Arcade,” which never quite realizes its epic ambitions.

In the service of such ambitions is, once again, the producer Brendan O’Brien. “Magic” is his third collaboration with Mr. Springsteen, after “The Rising” (written in the aftermath of September 11) and 2005’s solo “Devils and Dust.”

What was once a source of creative inspiration for Mr. Springsteen has now become somewhat of a crutch; under Mr. O’Brien’s supervision, the E Street Band is seldom allowed to sound like itself. Clarence Clemons’ saxophone is conspicuously scarce, and overall, the song arrangements, with their predictable, Broadway-like key modulations, seem coldly professional.

The hallmark of the Springsteen-O’Brien relationship is a cluttered and boomy soundscape that is at once in your face and sterilely distant. The tuneful rocker “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” is all but overpowered by Max Weinberg’s artificially explosive drum kit. And the Spectorian “Your Own Worst Enemy” is laden with all manner of gag-inducing production flourishes, including timpani drums and sleigh bells.

The spare, hidden final track “Terry’s Song” — written for Mr. Springsteen’s aide-de-camp of 23 years, Terry Magovern, who died earlier this year — is a welcome break from all the O’Brien-ness that precedes it. With piano, acoustic guitar, harmonica and voice, it speaks volumes about a guy who plainly meant a great deal to Mr. Springsteen: “When they built you, brother, they turned dust into gold/When they built you, brother, they broke the mold.”

The song is a human, heart-rattling reminder that friends and confidantes are ultimately bigger than any supposed political or social moment.

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