The more high praise I heard about Magic from the usual amen corners—a full five stars from the Springsteen marketing team at Rolling Stone, for example—the more worried I was about actually hearing it. Their tone was too worshipful, damning it with excessive praise. It sounded like boomer critics convincing themselves that glory days are here again. (The 9/11 tropes of The Rising, Springsteen’s last E Street Band effort, didn’t age well for them.)
My concern was more or less justified. Some of the songs, however catchy, are, by Springsteen standards, trifles. “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” features a sharp phrase-turn or two (“Your boot heels clickin’/Like the barrel of a pistol spinnin’ ’round”), but it just keeps rewording the same revenge fantasy. Worse are the contrived melodies that bog down “Your Own Worst Enemy” and “Girls in Their Summer Clothes.”
It’s probably too much to expect a 58-year-old rock legend to break new ground, and he doesn’t. There’s a same-as-the-old-Boss feel to a lot of Magic. “Livin’ in the Future” is a lesser “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” and “Long Walk Home” will remind you of “My Hometown.” What sounds different is the E Street Band—producer Brendan O’Brien mixed them down to a polished anonymity. Only Clarence Clemons stands out, and that’s too bad—his sax rarely sounds more than dutiful.
And yet. Surely one factor in the critical swoon is Magic’s political sensibility. Here I agree. Springsteen doesn’t mention Iraq, but this is a war record just the same, and not just in songs like the mournful “Gypsy Biker” (about a dead soldier coming home) and “Devil’s Arcade” (about a traumatized soldier). It’s there in a dozen lyrical asides (like this, from “Livin’ in the Future”: “Tell me is that rolling thunder/Or just the sinkin’ sound/Of something righteous going under”) that act as small snapshots of despair in Bush/Cheney America. Even the rocking single “Radio Nowhere,” about the emptiness of modern radio, is really about the corporatization of democracy as people sleep through the erosion of their country (“Is there anybody alive out there?”). His answer, of course, is the same as it’s always been: “I want a thousand guitars/I want pounding drums/I want a million different voices speaking in tongues.” It’s a great moment on an okay record, but Bruce Springsteen should not make okay records.