Bruce Springsteen’s footprints are all over the place these days: Obviously he’s an influence on the Hold Steady, the biggest band of ‘06, and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink arrangements of his 1970s albums can also be heard in the indie bombast of St. Vincent and Arcade Fire. But Springsteen’s own recent work is most successful—and most relevant—when mastering the melancholy narratives that made his later “flops” like Tunnel of Love and Ghost of Tom Joad so fascinating. Richard Meltzer once famously railed on Springsteen for relying on portrayals of the “Myth of America” instead of just screaming, “Vote for Walter! Our president wants us dead!” But this crotchety old punk mentality—and, okay, who cares about Richard Meltzer anymore?—misses the point: Springsteen isn’t a rabble rouser, he’s an observer, outsider, and storyteller who incidentally rouses a little rabble. He presents images and lets you decide for yourself. Take the number of critics who have read the Patriot Act into Magic‘s title track. “Magic” is, at face value anyway, a carnival shill’s creepy testament of prowess (“I’ll cut you in half/While you’re smiling ear to ear”); the song could, and probably does, represent how evil can be queasily seductive, not just in the years of Gitmo and Fallujah. Don’t get me wrong, these are Iraq songs, these are 9/11 songs, but their singer is not of a specific age—he is for all time!
The lyrics on Magic are great. In fact, they’re some of Springsteen’s greatest: The cocaine and bonfire-fueled biker funeral in “Gypsy Biker” is a doozy of a set piece, the army wife speaker of “Devil’s Arcade” is one of his richest characters, and the hidden set-closer “Terry’s Song” is the best rock elegy in years, maybe decades. But the actual tunes don’t always fare as well. Springsteen has dropped a major release nearly every year since 2001, sometimes two a year. So, what with all the writing and recording and touring and trying to save American democracy, maybe the songs on Magic were a little rushed. Other than “Livin’ in the Future,” which is a clear throwback to the funkier tracks of Born to Run, the songs are all clearly post-9/11 era Springsteen; the ones that sound like extras from the Devils and Dust sessions are intimate and moving and kind of elegant (“Magic,” “Devil’s Arcade,” “Long Walk Home”), but the full-band rockers that try to capture the spirit of The Rising‘s many triumphs falter a bit. Lead single “Radio Nowhere” never reaches the glory of the “thousand guitars, pounding drums, and million different voices speaking in tongues” that Springsteen demands, and “Your Own Worst Enemy” drags, since it’s clearly a Tunnel of Love-style ballad dressed up as a “Jungleland.” Still, at their worst, the songs are adequate; I’ve been listening to Magic a couple of times a day for the past week or so and have never hit the skip button.
Like The Rising and Devils and Dust, Magic is produced by Brendan O’Brien, and while I liked O’Brien’s work on both of those earlier records (The Rising captured the bombast of an E-Street show better than any other studio album since The River, and Devils was lush and brooding), the biggest problem with Magic is that it should just sound better. A few years ago, Wayne Coyne lamented that though Flaming Lips albums are now being elaborately mixed in 5.1 digital surround sound, most listeners won’t notice or care, since they all use “dumb” little iPod headphones. O’Brien must have had those earbud listeners in mind, because Magic sounds frustratingly thin through any other speaker. Max Weinberg’s drums are mixed so low that his high-hat on “Radio Nowhere” sounds like the CD is skipping, the vocals on “Girls in Summer Clothes” are muffled for some reason, and the otherwise perfect “Devil’s Arcade” grumbles where it should swell. Part of the problem is that the albums with O’Brien have emphasized the E-Street band as a guitar band, which makes sense since there are two lead guitarists (in addition to Springsteen) but which can sometimes dull down the fact that this is Bruce’s band: perhaps under-miked or under-mixed, the vocals seem like an afterthought on rockers like “Gypsy Biker” and “Last To Die.” Come on, Brendan, you’re not producing the Foo Fighters here.
In case you haven’t already gathered, I should probably admit that no other single recording artist has held a more impressionable sway over my career as a pop music listener than The Boss. Even during my extended anti-corporate-rock phase I held a secret, passionate devotion for “Secret Garden.” Slant readers, I have no doubt failed you, for in this case I may be too forgiving a listener. I’ll grant you that Magic is uneven, but I cannot admit that it is anything other than constantly captivating.