I want a thousand guitars
I want pounding drums
I want a million different voices
Speaking in tongues
-- Bruce Springsteen, “Radio Nowhere”
I’ve heard all the arguments: Bruce Springsteen, at 58 years old (with heavy emphasis on “old”), should not be making rock ‘n roll records. There’s something unseemly about it, like Laura Bush wearing a bikini. And he’s made a derivative rock ‘n roll record at that, one that plunders dubious musical treasures such as Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309 (Jenny),” as well as his own back catalogue.
You know what? I don’t care. It’s still Magic. That Tommy Tutone track, the first single which is billed as “Radio Nowhere” on Bruce’s album, makes me want to play air guitar and jump on the couch cushions. And I don’t care if “Livin’ in the Future” sounds just like “Tenth Avenue Freezeout.” You know why? Because “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” is one of the greatest songs ever recorded by anybody, any time, and if Bruce wants to copy himself, he could hardly steal from a better source.
So let’s dispense with the criticisms right away. First, Brendan O’Brien’s wall-of-sound production sounds great when you’re caught in rush hour traffic, forced to listen over the overtaxed minivan sound system (sorry, no rolling down the window and letting the wind blow back your hair on Orange Barrel City freeways these days), but not so great when you’re trying to focus on the individual instruments. Second, the venerable E Street Band members, due to their busy schedules, mailed in their parts piecemeal, and it sounds like it. Band chemistry? Not here.
The good news? The best news, in fact? This is a Bruce Springsteen rock ‘n roll album, a glorious, strutting, anthemic arena shaker, full of big gestures and big statements the likes of which we haven’t heard since Born in the U.S.A. And in truth, we haven’t heard some of these sounds since the Ford administration and Born to Run: Danny Federici’s circus calliope on “Livin in the Future,” Professor Roy Bittan’s lyrical piano intro on “I’ll Work For Your Love,” those impossibly outsized sax breaks from Clarence Clemons, the old trick of kicking it up a notch with a quick key change before launching into one of those patented, wailing solos.
Springsteen, of course, is a long way down Thunder Road from those early evocations of primal joy and angst along the Jersey Shore. Of late – hell, for most of the past twenty years – he’s been working in Woody Guthrie troubadour mode, spinning out modern-day protest music that is occasionally transcendent, but more frequently dour and downbeat. So let me note that those who view Magic as some sort of triumphant return to escapist songs about girls and cars have totally missed the point. It is nothing of the sort. “Livin’ in the Future,” that “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” knockoff, may feature a mindless “Nah nah nah nah” singalong chorus, but the verses are a merciless indictment of an administration driven by fear and lies. Most of this album works on the level of standard boy/girl melodrama, but it also works as an extended metaphor for the uneasy malaise of our times. Almost all of it rocks. Bruce has, in fact, made an album of social commentary you can dance to.
In a political era when protest music has often degenerated into the realm of sputtering, red-faced invective, and when even top-drawer songwriters like Steve Earle are reduced to name calling and insults, it is a joy to hear measured and literate commentary. And on the album’s best song, the lovely, elegiac “Long Walk Home,” Springsteen again assumes the mantle of the blue collar Everyman – that old trick again—and in that voice he delivers a withering analysis of the state of the union:
My father said ‘Son, we’re lucky in this town
It’s a beautiful place to be born
It just wraps its arms around you
Nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone.
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.’
Its gonna be a long walk home.
We’ve heard this – we’ve heard all of it, in fact – before. But we’ve never heard it played this way in the past; flat out, reveling in the din of a thousand guitars and Max Weinberg’s pounding drums, the tongues speaking a cautionary tale in a transcendently joyful language. And that is ultimately the triumph of Magic. It is a sad album, at times even a desperate album. But none of that overrides the couch jumping factor, the desire to propel my sagging, middle-aged body through the air like a rock ‘n roll comet; bright, fading fast, but burning. This is what Bruce Springsteen does for me, what he’s always done for me when he’s at his idealistic, arena shaking best. It is, and always will be, magic.