Bruce Springsteen – Magic

Magic (2007)

B

1. Radio Nowhere 2. You’ll Be Comin’ Down 3. Livin’ In The Future 4. Your Own Worst Enemy 5. Gypsy Biker 6. Girls In Their Summer Clothes 7. I’ll Work For Your Love 8. Magic 9. Last To Die 10. Long Walk Home 11. Devil’s Arcade 12. Terry’s Song

 

I gotta give Bruce credit for one thing. All these late-period albums may not be especially great, especially for a somewhat more casual fan like myself, but at least he’s never started totally coasting and putting out superfluous dogshit. Everything post-Tunnel of Love has its own reason for being that’s unique in the Springsteen catalog, even if the ultimate results aren’t always super palatable.

Like Magic. This is a tough one for me, because this is an album I’d have LOVED for Bruce to make 25 years earlier. Why, just in the very last Bruce review I wrote for Live In Dublin I was bitching yet again like broken record about how much more I enjoy Bruce’s poppier fare than the big blustery stuff that everybody else likes, and here he comes with a brisk, energetic album constituted almost entirely of three-and-a-half minute guitar-driven pop rock tunes! Just my luck, he waited until he was almost 60 to make that album, when he was probably more worried about lowering his cholesterol than writing a killer new riff. Ah, who am I kidding. Bruce is ridiculously good shape for a dude his age. I wouldn’t be surprised if he lives for another 30 years. I guess that whole “not taking drugs” thing has paid dividends for him after all.

Well, for an almost 60-year old classic rock dinosaur, this is an unusually spry, catchy record. Bruce had never really written a song with quite such a potent balance of propulsive rhythmic energy, growling guitarical bite, and melodicism as “Radio Nowhere” has. In more concise terms, it rocks. It rocks hard. I mean, it rocks hard in a simple, mid-tempo, Q104.3 rotation-friendly type of way and not like an anarchist punk way or anything like that, but still – it rocks hard. There are screaming guitar licks and frantic drum fills all over the joint. Bruce’s brow sounds thoroughly furrowed. It’s lean, it’s mean, it grooves. I wish there were more Bruce songs like it.

The rest of Magic doesn’t sound like that, instead allowing Bruce to indulge in some mid-’60s Brian Wilson/Phil Spector fetishism. Which is OK with me! It would be absurd to deny that there are a bunch of catchy-as-hell melodies here. But had Bruce done a record like this in the ‘70s or ‘80s, I can only assume those melodies wouldn’t have sounded as recycled and derivative as they sometimes do here. And they certainly wouldn’t have fallen prey to classic mid-2000s DYNAMIC OVERCOMPRESSION where there’s no texture to any of the individual instruments and the entire mix just sounds like a gigantic blast of white noise because that’s the easiest way to make everything AS LOUD AS FUCKING POSSIBLE. Yeah, it was such an awesome idea to make all of Clarence’s solos sound like canned kazoo samples. Fuckers. I can’t even blame the personnel in this case, since Magic was mastered by the great Bob Ludwig, who has mastered or engineered like every great rock album of all time going back to the early ‘60s (including pretty much every Springsteen album). It’s just that everyone in the music industry spent the period between 2005 and 2007 suffering from a mass delusion that that shit sounded good. God, I’m so glad that time is over. Not just because music sounds better now, but because I don’t have to go to high school and take math tests anymore.

The only junctures at which Magic actually gets dicey are the two songs that are just blatant rip-offs. I mean, “Your Own Worst Enemy” is nothing but an obvious rewrite of R.E.M.’s “At My Most Beautiful,” which itself is an overly precious Brian Wilson “tribute,” so we’re talking about like third-hand plagiarism here. Not great. Amazingly, “Livin’ in the Future” is even more egregious, not because it rips off any of Bruce’s heroes, but because it rips off his own damn self. I know I and others complained about The Rising not sounding enough like the E Street Band for an E Street Band album, but I don’t recall advocating for “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out Part 2” over here. The rip-off factor is so obvious that it’s impossible to take the song even a little bit seriously.

Outside of those two bombs, Bruce refrains from bald plagiarism, even if at certain points he starts to inadvertently repeat himself a little bit. But Magic is so surprisingly and consistently catchy it doesn’t actively interfere with my enjoyment so much as put a ceiling on how high that enjoyment can go. Like, sure, I can only enjoy “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” a radiant Spector-esque mid-’60s-style pop song with strings so much after having heard the very similar-sounding “You’ll Be Comin’ Down,” a superior and harder-rocking radiant Spectoresque mid-’60s-style pop song with strings, just four tracks earlier, but both are still fun to sing along to. Similar deal with “Gypsy Biker” and “Long Walk Home,” two mid-tempo acoustic/electric rockers with evocative dusty-highway Americana atmospheres. I like the more propulsive and melodically distinct “Gypsy Biker” better – those screaming guitar solos are almost Drive-By Truckers-esque. But “Long Walk Home” still offers some powerful lyrics that capture the frustration and alienation liberals felt during the Bush administration – a theme that effectively simmers throughout the album and boils over on the savage anti-Iraq War rocker “Last to Die.”

So Bruce didn’t have the stamina or imagination he did when he made Magic than he did back in the day. True. In 1982, the template of a ‘60s-influenced pop-rock album would have probably yielded something more surprising and adventurous than a batch of 12 mostly similar-sounding mid-tempo three-and-a-half-minute tunes with only the occasional harder-rocking (“Radio Nowhere”) or folksy (the intriguingly quiet, glowering title track) curveball. But it’s still Bruce Springsteen, and the man knows his way around a catchy melody no matter how old he is. He just ignores his instincts sometimes.



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