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My friend Phil calls me a Bruce Springsteen "purist," and to an extent, he's right. The romantic, mysterious boardwalk characters of his first two albums, the hope and longing of Born to Run, the collision that occurs when that hope meets the grim reality of Darkness on the Edge of Town, and the ultimate paradox it creates on The River combine to form perhaps the most compelling series of albums in all of rock & roll.
Springsteen and his long-standing sympathetic comrades The E Street Band managed to achieve seemingly incompatible aims: telling tales of the search for moments of humanity amid hardships and disappointments while making the most joyous, life-affirming music. Driven by Springsteen's eternally youthful sense of wonder and his uncommon intensity, the albums and the live performances left listeners with an unbreakable bond of community, a hint of a greater purpose and a feeling of elation which made them, in the words of one of his songs, "glad to be alive."
Over the next two and half decades, Springsteen's expanded on those themes, cut loose his band, and settled down and became a family man. There have been triumphs along the way - the stark Nebraska, the superstar-making Born in the USA, the adult-looking Tunnel of Love, and the rocking yet introspective Lucky Town. But especially in the last decade as epitomized by Devils and Dust and the more recent Seeger Session rootsy hootenannies, Springsteen has preferred to take the back streets, morphing into a more down-home, travelling troubabador and preferring to leave the fickle pop world to younger upstarts. There have been brilliant moments indeed, but it seemed like the days when a Springsteen tune could make the hairs on the back of my neck stand were long gone.
His one proper E Street Band rock album since Born in the USA - 2002's The Rising - was a flawed, yet noble attempt to make sense of 9/11. But aside from the title cut and "Lonesome Day," it sounded like Springsteen was tired of using rock & roll as a forum for his music. And when he did, like on a retread like "Mary's Place," it was a hollow shell of his glory days.
However on Magic, it appears he's rediscovered the music of his youth once again. And that revelation has freed him of the "Bruce Springsteen" man of the people shackles and has enabled him to have some fun.
CREATED AGAINST the backdrop of the Iraq war, Magic's heady topics and Springsteen's typically cautionary, succinct lyrics (astutely commented on by Post editor David Horovitz in last Friday's paper), are tempered by some of the sharpest rock and pop hooks he's ever pulled out of his book of tricks.
In similar fashion to The River, he offsets the dire narratives of lives being shattered and of shadowy governments with effervescent pop songs about life and love. The Spectorish flourishes of "You'll Be Comin' Down" and "Girls in their Summer Clothes," the taut E Street rock of "Gypsy Biker" and "I'll Work For Your Love," the workmanlike anthem "Long Walk Home," the 80s classic guitar of "Radio Nowhere" and the baroque, latter-day REM pop of "Your Own Worst Enemy," clearly demonstrate that the all-encompassing seriousness which has made some of Springsteen's recent music occasionally tedious and one-dimensional, has been sidelined in favor of a big oldies AM radio with heart.
Springsteen hasn't sounded this relaxed and comfortable since "Sherry Darling" and you can hear it in his voice. There's virtually none of the "old man" inflections and vernacular that has marred so much of his latter day work, ironic since this pop icon is now pushing 60 - he sounds younger than ever.
And just as importantly, instead of inventing down and out characters to sing through, Magic finds Springsteen - much like he did in Lucky Town - writing and singing in his own voice.
Producer Brendan O'Brien, just as he did with The Rising, doesn't pay much heed to the E Street Band's historic wall of sound, and directs a modern pop record, heavy on guitars, and full of inventive arrangements. But he's astute to include just enough E Street touches for continuity - the keyboard flourishes and from masters Roy Bittan (check out his classic intro to "I'll Work For Your Love") and Danny Federici, and the occasional prototype Clarence Clemons solos. But more often than not, the emotional foil for the new material is violinist Soozie Tyrell.
Even the most retro sounding tune "Living in the Future" (a dead ringer for "Tenth Avenue Freezeout") works in its own right as a perfect example of another serious Springsteen lyrical statement set against a robust R&B arrangement, which enables the band to stretch their soul roots.
While some call Magic Springsteen's big foray into politics with clear anti-war material like "Devil's Arcade," "Last to Die" and the stark title song making no mistake where he stands on the Iraq war, he's been a political animal for decades, whether it be in performances of "War" and "This Land is Your Land" during the Reagan years to his own populist songs like "Promised Land" and "Badlands" and the often misunderstood "Born in the USA."
"Devil's Arcade" breaks out of the radio-friendly rock direction of the previous 10 songs. It's an ambitious pop composition, building from a muted strummed acoustic guitar to an orchestral full band crescendo led by Tyrell's evocative violin and Max Weinberg's foreboding, syncopated drumming. The chilling music is matched note for note with a meticulous description of loss caused by the ravages of war. It's a breathtaking and chilling album climax.
"Terry's Song," an added-on tribute to Springsteen's longtime assistant and friend Terry McGovern, sums up the album with a return to the Boss's beginning. You can imagine a scrawny, scraggly-bearded Springsteen singing this to John Hammond at his 1972 audition for his first recording contract amid "Growin' Up," "Mary Queen of Arkansas" and "Does the Bus Stop at 82nd Street?"
The refrain "When they built you brother, they broke the mold" may have been sung for McGovern, but it also applies to the song's writer.
Magic recalls past glories while remaining firmly focused on the present, and the future. It's more than a Springsteen purist could hope for.