'Magic' at 15: Why it's one of Springsteen's greatest albums
Bruce Springsteen's "Magic," in addition to its other accolades, has the distinction of being the album that helped inspire Blogness on the Edge of Town — this blog launched in November of 2007, just two months after "Magic" dropped in September of that year. Given it got bumped from my 2012 book "Glory Days: Springsteen's Greatest Albums" for space reasons, its 15th anniversary seemed like a great excuse to give it some long overdue appreciation.
After roaring back into the public consciousness with his expansive E Street Band-backed album “The Rising” in 2003, Bruce Springsteen surprised exactly no one by releasing a smaller, personal solo album, “Devils & Dust” in 2005. (It’s something he’d done before, following up “The River” with “Nebraska,” and his one-two punch of “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town” with “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”) But what he followed that with surprised exactly everyone.
“We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” a rollicking Americana tribute to songs popularized by Pete Seeger that was recorded in his barn, basically in one day, was not on anybody’s 2006 Springsteen bingo card. And a tour to follow with that motley crew of banjo and trombone players was even more of a shocker. Hello, didn’t he just get the E Street Band back together?
In the end, you can certainly make the argument that it was a worthy diversion, especially in the way Springsteen reinterpreted some of his own earlier material during those shows, something he’d almost never done. But it also meant that afterwards, his fan base was, perhaps more than ever, ready to rock and roll — and fortunately for them, so, it seems, was Bruce.
“Magic,” recorded in the spring of 2007 and released on Sept. 25 of that year, was what Springsteen fans had been waiting for, arguably since “Born in the USA” 23 years earlier: An album that, like “The Rising,” was rocking and versatile — but that sounded like a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band album. That’s something “The Rising,” with its haunting fiddles and organs, never really did.
But it’s worth noting that “Magic,” like “The Rising,” is also about something: specifically, the state of the nation, in a way none of Springsteen’s earlier albums really had been. Granted, some of the issues he was concerned about — the war in Iraq, the erosion of civil liberties post 9/11, the questionable actions sanctioned by the Bush administration on many fronts — seem almost quaint in our current era of Trump-inspired election deniers and MAGA insurrectionists. But at the time they represented a disturbing turn for the country, and Springsteen, like he’d done with 9/11, was one of the few artists to call them out head-on.
That’s not to say “Magic” is some pastiche of Billy Bragg-style political polemics. Instead, it does what Springsteen does best: tells the story of our nation’s woes and challenges through clearly drawn characters, cutting turns of phrase, and a variety of well-executed musical styles, from straight-ahead rock to blue-eyed soul to lush pop, all (or at least most) in service to a furious overarching message.
“The album hides its raw disillusionment deep within the music, mingling it with a weary optimism and a thoroughly committed lustiness that have not diminished with age,” Stephen M. Deusner wrote in his review of the album for Pitchfork. “The result is a surprisingly complex album that recalls ‘The River’ in its heartfelt populism, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ in its small-town scope, and ‘Tunnel of Love’ in its mature take on love and sex.” It was one of a raft of glowing reviews, and the general populace seemed to agree: “Magic” debuted at No. 1 in the U.S. and easily sailed to platinum status. Not bad for a 58-year-old artist’s 15th album.
Granted, “Magic” doesn’t start with what you’d call an instant classic. “Radio Nowhere” is lively but has some cringey moments, particularly when Springsteen evokes his decades-old concert audience query — ”Is there anybody ALIVE out there?” — as a repeated lyrical interlude. (Was that absolutely necessary?) Also, the unfortunate resemblance of its chord progressions to Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny” doesn’t help.
What “Radio Nowhere” does do well, however, is lay down the album’s attitude: “I want a thousand guitars, I want pounding drums, I want a million different voices speaking in tongues,” Springsteen sings amid crashing and at some points dueling guitars, wailing backing vocals from Stevie Van Zandt, and even a strident sax solo from Clarence Clemons. (Max Weinberg of course provides the requested pounding drums throughout.) Musically, this record will be everything “We Shall Overcome” wasn’t, Bruce seems to be saying.
Apparently to that end, Springsteen once again utilized the production talents of Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien, who’d also handled “The Rising.” The results have been a sticking point for fans ever since: The prevailing sentiment seems to be that the O’Brien-produced records tend to make it sound like the band had been recording from inside a cement mixer. And granted, there is a lot going on in some of these tracks, making it harder to discern, say, Roy Bittan’s striking piano lines and Danny Federici’s organ flourishes amid the clamor.
That’s certainly true in some cases, but a listen to “Magic” today reveals it’s far from a disaster, and many of the tracks are actually inarguably successful — although in terms of sheer listenability, the ones with the crispest production tend to come off the best.
Case in point: “I’ll Work For Your Love,” which kicks off the album’s second half with a classic Roy piano intro before diving into some of Springsteen’s best and most beautiful romance-meets-religion metaphors in years. “'Round your hair the sun lifts a halo, at your lips a crown of thorns,” he sings to the bartender for whose love he’s prepared to work, adding later, “'The pages of Revelation lie open in your empty eyes of blue.” Bittan’s piano buoys the track throughout, but Bruce’s own brief harmonica solo is also a welcome standout.
One track earlier, meanwhile, “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” is a looking-back ’60s-style nugget that evokes Phil Spector and the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” while at the same time embracing a sense of melancholy in a way those rarely did. “The girls in their summer clothes pass me by,” sings the song’s down-on-his-luck but ultimately optimistic hero (“Things been a little tight, but I know they're gonna turn my way”), more as an observation than a lament. (One wonders if Springsteen had read fellow New Jerseyan Philip Roth’s “Everyman,” released a year earlier, whose aging protagonist finds his charms no longer carry the weight they did in his youth.) The lush pop orchestration — which some might argue Springsteen would go on to overdo on 2009’s “Working on a Dream” — is simply perfect here, anchored by Garry Tallent’s ever-underrated bass brilliance.
Then there’s “Livin’ in the Future,” the album’s nod to “Born to Run”-era E Street soul, complete with glockenspiel, classic Federici organ riffs, and plenty of Stax-style honking from the Big Man. The lyrics, meanwhile, are some of Springsteen’s cleverest and most biting in his entire catalog, capturing the damaging effects of Bush-era swagger via figurative phrasing worthy of Elvis Costello:
“Woke up election day
Sky's gunpowder and shades of gray
Beneath the dirty sun
I whistle my time away
Then just about sundown
You come walking through town
Your boot heels clicking like
The barrel of a pistol spinning ’round.”
That verse, and the song in general, paint the perfect picture of a nation caught with its pants down as the powers that be drag it in a direction it never should have gone.
While not necessarily as interesting musically, two other tracks also do a good job equating the country’s political troubles with a failed relationship. “You’ll Be Comin’ Down,” a jangly, almost Byrds-style scorned lover lament, predicts a fitting end for the song’s titular target: “Easy street, a quick buck and true lies, smiles as thin as those dusky blue skies,” Springsteen describes, in as appropriate a take on George W. you’re likely to find, concluding later, “You'll be fine long as your pretty face holds out, then it's gonna get pretty cold out.”
And on “Your Own Worst Enemy,” Springsteen even more brilliantly conflates relationship malaise and political upheaval, painting a stunning picture of a guilty, possibly cheating lover for whom “the times, they got too clear, so you removed all the mirrors.” By the end it’s clear the enemy (as the song’s title would suggest) is us, having let our guard down and allowed the country to veer toward collapse under the weight of false patriotism: “Your flag it flew so high, it drifted into the sky,” he ends on, bitingly, in contrast to the song’s lush California sound — not quite as compelling here as on “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” but still an effective vehicle for Bruce’s impressingly plaintive croon.
Not all of “Magic” has aged perfectly: The title track feels more like an interlude than a fully fleshed-out song, but its imagery and musical sense of foreboding make it stick. And “Last to Die,” with its dramatic string riffs and doubled vocal tracks, feels like it’s trying just a bit too hard (O’Brien’s frenzied production really doesn’t help here) — although, like “Magic,” it features more than its share of devastating, acerbic turns of phrase. (“We don't measure the blood we've drawn anymore, we just stack the bodies outside the door.”)
Two other tracks, meanwhile, are notable for offering some of Springsteen’s most compellingly literary lyrics, evocative and moving at the same time. What’s notable about “Gypsy Biker” and “Devil’s Arcade” is that they don’t fall back on the folk/country story-song style Bruce employed for songs like “Highway Patrolman.” Instead, they’re rife with finely drawn scenes that, woven together, both complete the story and break our collective hearts.
In “Gypsy Biker,” which tells of a small-town man lost to war, we meet the mother who “pulled the sheets up off [his] bed,” the grieving sister clutching his folded flag, the drunken brother, the room full of silent relatives “just waitin' on the phone.” Then Springsteen — whose driving harmonica and resigned vocals combine to riveting effect throughout the track — poetically describes his friends’ final pilgrimage with the lost soldier’s bike:
“We rode her into the foothills, Bobby brought the gasoline
We stood 'round her in a circle as she lit up the ravine
The spring high desert wind rushed down on us all the way back home.”
“Devil’s Arcade” starts much more quietly, building from silence to an eerie hum and haunting cello before giving way to eventual driving drums (some of Max’s best work on the album), plaintive, emotive guitar and far more strident strings. Told from a woman’s perspective, it starts with mingled images of lust and death before springing forward to paint the effects of war on her wounded lover and herself.
“The cool desert morning, then nothin' to save
Just metal and plastic where your body caved
The slow games of poker with Lieutenant Ray
In the ward with the blue walls, a sea with no name
Where you lie adrift with the heroes of the devil's arcade.”
In the last verse, she allows herself to dream of “a bed draped in sunshine, a body that waits,
for the touch of your fingers at the end of the day.” As the slow beat of Max’s drum fades away to end the track, the unlikelihood of those hopes ever coming to pass is agonizing.
(This would have been a fitting way to bring the album to a close; instead it ends with “Terry’s Song,” the solo tribute to Springsteen’s just-passed longtime colleague, confidant and friend Terry McGovern, added just before release. It’s spare, personal, moving, obviously heartfelt — and probably should have been left off.)
“Devil’s Arcade” would definitely be in the running for the album’s masterpiece, but I’d argue for another track: “Long Walk Home,” a song that encapsulates the album’s theme and is, ultimately, quintessentially Springsteenesque. Its images of small-town decay — “The diner was shuttered and boarded with a sign that just said ‘gone’” — are as haunting as any in the Springsteen canon, and when the narrator quotes his father in the last verse, it’s a damning indictment of where we were as a country:
“You know that flag flying over the courthouse
means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't.”
And yet, the song is hopeful in that way that the best Springsteen songs always are: in its upbeat melody, in in the driving thrum of his guitar and the choral backing vocals from Stevie and Patti Scialfa, in the thrilling guitar and saxophone breaks — and in the sentiment behind the idea that “it’s gonna be a long walk home.” It’s an idea built on Springsteen’s long-stated belief that the America we carry in our hearts is waiting, and if we have the determination to seek it out, eventually we can get to it. (Of course, the walk home may be even longer now than it was then — but that’s another story.)
In the end, “Magic” funneled something Springsteen likely also found appealing in those old songs he sang during the Seeger Sessions — namely, righteous anger and the idea that things can be better, if only we wake up to the need to make them that way — into something that stands neck and neck with his greatest and most representative works. And all through is the much-welcome return of the E Street Band as we knew it: sometimes a bit lost in the mix, but with enough inspiring standout moments to feel like they were more than helping Bruce carry the weight.
Sadly, the photo on the gatefold of the album’s vinyl version — featuring Danny, Max, Nils, Clarence, Bruce, Patti, Stevie and Garry in glorious black and white, boasting various expressions of joy and contemplation — was the last time we’d seem them together like that on one of Bruce’s recorded works; Danny would wind up leaving the Magic tour and passing away from melanoma in 2008, and of course we lost Clarence to a stroke a few years later. That the band was able to come together as a whole that one last time, and create something as glorious and important as “Magic,” is something for which we should be forever grateful.
More on "Glory Days: Springsteen's Greatest Albums" here.