Springsteen and the American Muse

Here’s the lead: Bruce Springsteen’s deep and nourishing Magic, released today, isn’t on a par with Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town. But it’s firmly on the next level down, alongside The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle, Nebraska, The River and Tunnel of Love. And that’s saying something for a rock star of 58 years in age who has nibbled around the edges of pop music for the last two decades without fully wading in.

Magic is a self-referential work of mature genius, a work of its time, and a record built on the foundations of others, from Brian Wilson and Roy Orbison to the Byrds and Dylan and Phil Spector.

Unlike The Shamus, whose terrific review appears below, I’ve spent several weeks with Magic and have listened to its best tunes dozens of times – it’s frankly brilliant, and worthy of the best in the Springsteen canon. It’s the work of an older man, the rare record recorded by a star in late middle age who drops the teen angst and captures both those long decades and the deep pop groove, filled with happy hooks and fills.

Further, there’s a darkness there that I admire deeply – a writing in the shadows that rekindles what I first loved about Bruce Springsteen’s writing, when I was a skinny teen and he was a skinny 25-year-old.

Girls In Their Summer Clothes is the best song on the album, worthy of Springsteen’s best work, perfectly written and utterly evocative. It’s layered in Spector chorus of guitars and strings and the glockenspiel, the street-level view of an older man, down on his luck, watching the world and the girls go by.

A kid’s rubber ball smacks
Off the gutter ‘neath the lamp light
Big bank clock chimes
Off go the sleepy front porch lights
Downtown the stores alight
As the evening’s underway
Things been a little tight
But I know they’re gonna turn my way

And the girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
The girls in their summer clothes
Pass me by

The record’s lead track and first single, Radio Nowhere, is a slick guitar-driven rocker with a hook I can’t out of my head and bleak Cormac McCarthy lyrics. Sure it’s slight, but it still makes a great way to kill three minutes. Livin’ in the Future is a vicious attack on those in power in America, contained in a snappy pop tune from farther down the boardwalk:

Woke up election day
Skies gunpowder and shades of grey
Beneath a dirty sun, I whistle my time away
Then just about sundown
You come walkin’ through town
Your boot heels clickin’
Like the barrel of a pistol spinnin’ round

Gypsy Biker is troubling and dedicated to a whole legion of Springsteen anti-heroes – from the Highway Patrolman to the dead-end greaser in Racing in the Streets, but most especially the returning solder in Shut Out the Light, which Springsteen explicitly reprises in the lyric.

The speculators made their money on the blood you shed
Your momma’s pulled the sheets up off your bed
The profiteers on Jane Street sold your shoes and clothes
Ain’t nobody talkin’ because everybody knows
We pulled your cycle up back to the garage and polished up the chrome
Our gypsy biker’s comin’ home

Sister Mary sits with your colors, brother John is drunk and gone
This whole town’s been rousted, which side are you on?
The favored march up over the hill in some fools parade
Shoutin’ victory for the righteous but there ain’t much here but graves
Ain’t nobody talkin’, we’re just waitin’ on the phone
Gypsy biker’s comin’ home

It’s an anti-war song, but it’s not about the politicians or the policy – it’s about those who do the fighting and dying, the guys who come home injured inside and out. It’s stark and alienating and scary. This new record isn’t about “pulling out of here to win.” It’s about “settling in here to die” – but dying with a full recognition, facing forward, with an utter lack of irony.

And it’s a Catholic who faces forward, as Springsteen makes clear in I’ll Work for Your Love, a sweet and lush piece of romanticism melding faith and sex and fidelity – just as fine a love song as Springsteen has ever written:

Well tears, they fill the rosary at your feet, my temple of bones
Here in this perdition we go on and on
Now our city of peace has crumbled, our book of faith’s been tossed
And I’m just down here searchin’ for my own piece of the cross
In the late afternoon sun fills the room with the mist in the garden before the fall
I watch your hands smooth the front of your blouse and seven drops of blood fall

Finally, there’s Terry’s Song – a moving tribute to Springsteen’s longtime friend and colleague Terry Magovern, who died this summer. Finely crafted and person, it’s an instant part of the Springsteen canon – and an addition to many a Boomer funeral liturgy (play it at mine, please):

They say you can’t take it with you, but I think that they’re wrong
‘Cause all I know is I woke up this morning, and something big was gone
Gone into that dark ether where you’re still young and hard and cold
Just like when they built you, brother, they broke the mold

There are lesser tunes on the record, but no clunkers. It’s all part of a piece, a general sound, a place in time. I can’t tell you how blown away I am by Magic, Bruce Springsteen’s best work in 20 productive years.

10 Replies to “Springsteen and the American Muse

  1. Tom, no argument here, although “Girls In Their Summer Dresses” doesn’t do as much for me as “Livin’ In The Future” and “Magic.” I hope the whole disc keeps growing on me, but it’s been exciting today to feel reenergized by a mainstream pop album. It’s been awhile. One nit: I keep seeing these references to “Terry’s Song,” but that wasn’t on the Apple download I got today, unless it has been renamed “Devil’s Arcade.” And if I’ve been screwed out of a song, I’m not going to be happy.

  2. I’ll second everything you’ve said Tom although I prefer Terry’s Song, Living In The Future, and I’ll Work For Your Love to Girls In Their Summer Clothes.

    But that’s like arguing over whether Thunder Road is better than Born To Run. Bruce has made a great record, up there with everything he’s done other than BTR, Darkness, and Nebraska in my book.

  3. Viscount, I was there baby…

    But I have to disagree on Darkness – it’s my favorite, actually. Love the raw power, and slimmed down lyrics, the guitars and well, the darkness.

  4. >Viscount, I was there baby…But I have to disagree on Darkness – it’s my favorite, actually. Love the raw power, and slimmed down lyrics, the guitars and well, the darkness.

  5. Viscount, I was there baby…

    Cool. Wish I was.

    But I have to disagree on Darkness – it’s my favorite, actually. Love the raw power, and slimmed down lyrics, the guitars and well, the darkness.

    Yep – and I think most of his fans are in your camp. Speaking of guitars I thought it was a great decision to add Nils Lofgren as a permanent member of the band.

    We do agree that the new record is a winner…

  6. You know who’s a big star on the record, but hardly ever gets any attention – Federici. He’s to E-Street what Garth Hudson is to the Band, laying down whatever bed of whirling sound is appropriate.

  7. I’m not sold on Livin’ In the Future, although I was always lukewarm on 10th Avenue Freeze-Out until I saw it live, and the songs are kind of similar to me.

    Thundercrack is apparently in the band’s set for this tour. Yes!

  8. Yeah, Thundercrack is a terrific song, but it’s a great performance….been listening to that one on boots since the 70s but never heard it live.

  9. It’s a strong album. But it’s not as good as The Wild & Innocent (my fave Springsteen record) or Nebraska, not to mention the big ones (BTR, Darkness). Similar in a lot of ways to The River or Tunnel of Love–spotty but liberally sprinkled w/ great stuff.

    I’m also not as sold on the lyrical strength of the record (w/ the exception of Gypsy Biker, which I’m coming around to as the best song on the album, the one where the social message finds a home in a human narrative instead of general platitudious musing). I’m really rankled by the mangled syntax of chorus of the otherwise wonderful (and, I think, strictly Catholic devotional song) “I’ll Work For Your Love” (What others may want for free I’ll work for your love?!??.)

    Some of the lyrics are just plain dumb and cliched (Radio Nowhere, which is a rocking performance but a shitty excuse for a song, and Last to Die)–not up to the level of springsteen’s greatest songs. And even the songs I like best (besides I’ll Work…and Gypsy Biker)–Girls in their Summer Clothes, Your Own Worst Enemy–rely on some pretty pedestrian rhymes and images, particularly for Springsteen, who, at his best, can really dazzle (The Losing Kind, still unreleased from the original Nebraska 4-track tape, is better written lyrically than anything but Gypsy Biker here).

    But on balance I agree that it’s his best record since he broke up the band the first time in 1987, I really like it a lot. Sounds fresh, something I haven’t said about a springsteen record in, well, 20 years.

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