Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Bruce Springsteen – Magic

Now that we’ve all had a chance to stream Bruce’s new one, let’s get down to it: There is something Magic about Springsteen when he teams with the E Street Band. There’s been plenty of magic when he goes it alone (see Nebraska, etc.), but on the other side of things, for instance, it remains difficult shaking a lackluster, somehow sad performance by Clarence Clemons at a rainy Trenton State Fair ten or so years ago (unless memory’s playing tricks, he was wearing a long leather trench coat). The point? Bruce can go it alone just fine, but he’s a brilliant director, who gets these players to articulate his vision, bringing out their strengths and helping us forget their weaknesses. Plus, it’s always fun watching them interact, lean into each other for a chorus … just that friendship, and time spent together in the studio and on stages. These guys and gal have been playing together so long, it’s fun (and easy) to find the echoes. Pair “Livin’ In The Future” with “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” Here, there’s a taste of blood on a tongue, lots of “darlin’,” and Clemens’s sax solo hits like a gorgeous memory. Same goes for that redolent piano at the beginning of “I’ll Work For You Love”…

At this point in the E Street time line, the gang may not dish as many shivers as they did in the Born To Run era, but on the Boss’s fifteenth studio album, there are still some plenty rousing moments. Opener “Radio Nowhere” is a call for an inspired broadcast world with rhythm and soul and folks speaking in tongues … asking for a lot, Bruce, no? The idea of radio as a personal connector … remember that? On the downside, it ends a bit early in a mid-jam fade. (Sweeping “Devil’s Arcade”‘s one moment where the band lets loose: Springsteen repeating “the beat of your heart” over a growing swell.)

“Radio Nowhere” is interestingly unlike the rest of the album — a kind of modern rock call to arms separated from the mellow (but suitably, softly anthemic) “You’ll Be Coming Down.” Magic doesn’t feel political in the same way as other recent work — it’s family & friends, small town comings and goings, street lights shining. The pretty, nostalgic “Girls In Their Summer Clothes,” a breeze crossing a porch with “Thunder Road,” totally makes us think of Stephen Merritt: “Lovers, they walk by, holding hands two by two … tonight I’m gonna burn this town down.” There’s a nighttime feel throughout: Chimes, sleeplessness, swooning melodies, and strings of “Your Own Worst Enemy.” The piano ballad closer “Terry’s Song” looks at an attitude stronger than death … That don’t-wait-up trek, “Long Walk Home,” “in the distance … the town where I was born,” has already made us drive to Jersey and grab a grilled cheese sandwich.

Relatively forgettable tracks like “Gypsy Bike” (despite the name) and “Last To Die,” a tone like “Highwayman,” just kinda blow past. Of course, the second you make that statement, lyrics float to the top, you hear the story he’s telling, and things get significantly more interesting (see, especially, “Last To Die”‘s highway run … see, the
“Highwayman” thing makes sense). Springsteen’s been quoted (or referenced) as being a fan of the National. “I’ll Work For You Love” — some blouse smoothing, blood droplets — is reminiscent, in feel, to images flowing from Berninger’s pen.

The strummed, stringed title track, with its ghostly backup vocals and keys, feels like Tom Joad with a bunch of magic tricks, cards, shackles, rabbits, slicing someone in half … Springsteen asking to be chained in a box in a river. Of course, we have a metaphor going on: “Trust none of what you hear / and less of what you see.” Freedom is described as a ghost drifting among trees … the sun sinks … there are bodies up in the trees, etc. Right, certain things don’t disappear.

Magic is out 10/2 on Sony.