Sunday, January 27, 2013

Just When I Thought An Album Couldn't Impress Me, Bruce Springsteen Performs Magic!

The Good: Excellent lyrics, Good music, Stirring vocals
The Bad: A little too familiar to be perfect.
The Basics: Bruce Springsteen returns with an album that is smart, musically rich and vocally distinct, making Magic worthwhile for anyone.

While I have been listening to a lot of new music and music that is new to me (my forthcoming reviews of Linda Ronstadt's works have been adding to my musical vocabulary), there has been little that has impressed me. I cannot remember the last time I listened to an album and thought "that was a perfect album."

Bruce Springsteen's Magic is not a perfect album, but it's the closest I've heard in a long time. When the opening chords of "Radio Nowhere" burst into my ears, I had the same feeling I did when I first truly heard Dar Williams' song "Are You Out There?" opening End Of The Summer (reviewed here!). Both tracks evoke a feeling of hopelessness and desperation, combined with a yearning that only a great singer-songwriter may create.

And despite what some might think - given my reviews of some of Springsteen's less able outings - Bruce Springsteen is an inspired singer-songwriter. Magic reminds us of that. Magic reaffirms that the potential for an established artist to surprise and challenge us still exists. . . . Almost. What keeps Magic from breaking into that rare niche of having a perfect album is simple; there are moments the sound, feel and even lyrics are too close to what we've already heard from Springsteen to allow us to accept that we are hearing something truly new.

That said, Magic is a twelve-track (the final track, "Terry's Song" is a hidden track), almost fifty-one minute opus that reminds the listener that Bruce Springsteen can write, sing and play numerous instruments. On Magic, he plays guitar, organ, harmonica, keyboard, glockenspiel, and undefined percussion. He is the lead vocalist and he provides backing vocals. What, you might be asking, does he need anyone else for? Well, there are other instruments, like a cello on "Devil's Arcade." Despite the fact that Springsteen does not receive any production credit on the album, that he wrote all of the songs, plays so much on each one and provides most of the vocals, it is hard not to argue that this is the musical vision of Bruce Springsteen.

Lyrically, Springsteen reminds the listener right away that he is back in his prime form. Opening with the nihilistic "Radio Nowhere's" "I was tryin' to find my way home / But all I heard was a drone / Bouncing off a satellite / Crushin' the last lone American night . . ." he quickly establishes a tone of yearning that is continued through much of the album. Indeed, there is a whole sense of classic folk to Magic in that it takes the political and the personal and makes them intricately and intimately tied to one another.

Indeed, there is a classic Dylan sound to "You'll Be Comin' Down" and when Springsteen sings "A letter come blowin' in on an ill wind / Somethin' 'bout me and you / Never seein' one another again . . .Woke up Election Day / Skies gunpowder and shades of gray / Beneath a dirty sun, I whistled my time away . . ." ("Livin' In The Future") there is a strange commingling in the imagery that makes the personal political and vice versa. Indeed, there is something lyrically genius about the tone of "Livin' In The Future," wherein Springsteen paints an awful picture, then adds the cathartic "We're livin' in the future and / none of this has happened yet," subtly exhorting his listeners to make sure it does not happen.

And some of Magic is melancholy and wonderful, with songs like "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" musing on aging and one of the most straightforward and realistic love songs to grace my ears in recent times with "I'll Work For Your Love." What keeps Magic on top of my playlist at the moment are the lyrics. Springsteen is refreshingly smart with the lines and though he does use repetition a bit more than I would like, he does not resort to cheap rhyme schemes that have been overdone by any and every musician to ever pick up a pen. This works out well for him on tracks like "Your Own Worst Enemy," where trying for a clever line as opposed to repeating "Your own worst enemy has come to town" might have backfired.

Musically, Magic has quite a bit to offer, a richness that is not always present on a Springsteen album. Springsteen adeptly utilizes production elements on "Radio Nowhere" and "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" to help add punch - and on the former track a genuine sense of futility.

What makes this musically successful is that largely it does not sound like a guy with his guitar in front of a microphone. Instead, more than any other Springsteen album I can recall right now, Magic sounds like a collaborative work among the various members of the band. Even on tracks that do not grab me so much, like "Gypsy Biker," there is good interplay between the guitars and harmonica. Neither one monopolizes the sound and as a result, despite being somewhat short for my tastes, Magic does not feel musically repetitive. Moreover, the musical richness - the virtual wall of sound created by Springsteen and his accompanying band - offsets the tracks that go for something more simple and striking.

As a result, "Your Own Worst Enemy" stands out for its stark quality in great contrast to the very produced songs around it. That is by no means an insult, either; musically, "You'll Be Coming Down," the album's second track, is simultaneously the greatest homage to Dylan Springsteen might have written himself and the archetypal Springsteen rock and roll track. Similarly, following on the track noteworthy for its use of bells (or more likely, given the credits, the glockenspiel) "Girls In Their Summer Clothes," comes the stark and deep "I'll Work For Your Love," which is almost entirely ruled by Springsteen's vocals.

On Magic, Springsteen remains fairly safe vocally. He adds to his range and presents a smoother sound on "Girls In Their Summer Clothes," but is otherwise unafraid to mumble and rasp his lyrics out. He is very articulate, but he has a distinctive voice that is more defined by its ground-earth sound as opposed to his range. As far as his tone goes, Magic presents a rather straightforward Bruce Springsteen that is familiar instantly to anyone who has ever heard Springsteen on the radio.

In fact, the most clever vocal presentation comes on the album's penultimate track, wherein Springsteen modulates his voice to take on a hypnotic quality that expresses the lines "The beat of your heart" ("Devil's Arcade") perfectly with his repetition of that simple line. He takes on a cadence that says what he sings in a way that is the ideal for showing, not telling and he does that quite well.

Who will like "Magic?" Anyone who likes a strong male vocalist, who is not afraid to be emotive and intelligent. Indeed, on this album, Springsteen has all of that and he performs it quite well. It's almost enough to give one hope in the future of music.

The best track is either "Radio Nowhere" or "You'll Be Comin' Down." The weakest track is probably the unmemorable "Last To Die."

For other works by Bruce Springsteen, please check out my reviews of:
The Ghost Of Tom Joad
The Rising
Devils & Dust


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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