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.