Friday, October 12, 2007

"Magic:" American Ideals, American Reality

After a little over a week of living with Bruce Springsteen’s Magic, it’s time to finally put some thoughts to paper – so to speak.

With a few exceptions, the sole focus of the media and the blogosphere has been on the album’s politics, which is disappointing to me because the politics should not have come as a surprise, and to focus on the lyrics alone ignores what I see as one of the album’s greatest triumphs – Bruce’s success (and much of that success should probably be credited to producer Brendan O’Brien) in creating a sound that is instantly familiar to anyone who has ever listened to Springsteen, but at the same time sounds different than anything he’s recorded before. The River didn’t sound like Darkness on the Edge of Town which didn’t sound like Born to Run, but that was more than 25 years ago. That Springsteen is able to pull that off at a time when he is approaching 60 is reason to rejoice.

Musically, this is Springsteen’s strongest album since Tunnel of Love, twenty years ago. It’s also his hardest rocking – we haven’t heard Springsteen songs with the frontal guitar assault of “Radio Nowhere,” “Gypsy Biker,” and “Last to Die” since the days of “Roulette.” But whether it’s that approach, or something like “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” which sounds like it could have been recorded by the Righteous Brothers in 1965, or songs in the classic Springsteen mold like “Livin’ in the Future,” “I’ll Work For Your Love,” and “Long Walk Home” - from a musical standpoint, there simply isn’t a weak song on the album.

As for the politics: in his 60 Minutes interview last weekend, Springsteen made the following comment, one which provides the key to unlocking the theme of the album.

“I would say that what I do is try to chart the distance between American ideals and American reality. That’s how my music is laid out. It’s like we’ve reached a point where it seems we’re so intent on protecting ourselves that we’re willing to destroy the best parts of ourselves to do so.”

The songs that most clearly define this theme – the distance between American ideals and American reality – are “Radio Nowhere,” “Your Own Worst Enemy,” “Gypsy Biker,” “Magic,” “Last to Die,” “Long Walk Home,” and “Devil’s Arcade.” Anyone looking to paint Springsteen as “anti-American” will be disappointed to find that there’s nothing simple here – these are complex songs, obviously the work of a thoughtful, mature person – one who clearly loves the country in which he lives, but just wishes it were better. One can debate whether Bruce’s vision of the country is naïve, or even entirely correct – very little is black and white in this day and age. And based on other comments Springsteen has made in interviews and during concerts, you can certainly accuse him of being anti-Bush – a distinction that hardly makes him unique in this day and age. But one thing you simply cannot accuse him of, without making yourself look extremely foolish, is being anti-American.

There are three of those songs that I’d single out as instant classics – songs that, right here and now, I’d be willing to say will stand in the Springsteen pantheon alongside such classics as “Born to Run,” “Badlands,” “The Promised Land,” and “Born in the U.S.A.”: “Radio Nowhere,” “Gypsy Biker,” and “Long Walk Home.”

More than any other song on the album, “Radio Nowhere” proves that Springsteen can create music in 2007 that sounds as vital as the music he recorded in 1975. You can take the song as a spirited blast against the current state of corporate radio (I was spinnin’ round a dead dial/Just another lost number in a file/Dancin’ down a dark hole/Just searchin’ for a world with some soul), or interpret the “radio” as a metaphor for the current black hole of American political discourse (Is there anybody alive out there?) – the song works equally well in either interpretation, which adds to its strength.

Ultimately, where Magic fits into the Springsteen pantheon is a question best left to history; the kind of thing that is sure to spark friendly arguments over beers for years to come. At this moment, I feel comfortable saying that it’s his strongest album since 1984's Born in the U.S.A. I hope, 23 years from now, that I’ll be able to say Magic defined an era as well as that earlier album did. You never know about these things, but I’ve got a good feeling about it.

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