Early responses have pegged Bruce Springsteen's latest album, "Magic," his first in five years with the E Street Band, as a return to classic form and a retreat from all that anti-war hot-button stuff; good old classic rock.
These reviews evince a welcome relief from the embarrassing exuberance of the last E Street Band album, 2002's "The Rising" (forgivable because of, you know, 9/11) and from the enigmatic folk-inflected solo trifles that made up Bruce's "Devils & Dust" and "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions."
Bruce Springsteen, however, isn't. And he hasn't been wasting the last 20 years just because the generation old enough to get its reviews published can't help waiting for the next "Dancing in the Dark."
"The Rising" was a moving, and often raw reflection of a national feeling that was itself still raw and confused; and Mr. Springsteen's folk explorations, too, were a timely excursion into that dark lonesome spirit-world Mr. Springsteen inhabited on one of the greatest albums of his career, "Nebraska," because it was the right time for that excursion.
Of course "Magic" does cover some old ground, but its concepts and images come not from that same famed suburban teenage ennui that made Mr. Springsteen beloved in Asbury Park, nor from the middle-aged working-class regret that stamped its impression on "Born in the U.S.A." and made him a superstar.
This is rock with the kind of adult, unstill energy which is the same energy that took him out on the campaign trail in 2004 and has had him testifying against war like a pissed-off preacher in concerts for the past few years.
The opener and lead single "Radio Nowhere" is a call to action in the crushing world of music itself; for a return to spirit and soul on the American ether, once filled with radio waves that made movements but now reduced, in Mr. Springsteen's words, to "a drone." It's all heartbreak and yearning for a simple, positive answer ("I just want to hear some rhythm!"), while Nils Lofgren and Steven Van Zandt trade vamping riffs with screeching solos, underpinned by Max Weinberg's boisterous drumming.
Now, if you stopped your Bruce clock in 1984 then you'd be breathing a big sigh of relief right about now, because finally it sounds kinda like it did back then oh man oh boy. But get past the sax solos from the big man, Clarence Clemons, and the hearty piano rolls of Danny Federici and even the undeniable sing-along harmonies and what you will hear are words born of unease, horror, suffering, and regret. These are songs about dead soldiers, about intractable, potentially stifling notions of what it means to be an American ("Long Walk Home," has a father telling his son "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 about being accountable towards the whole even when you feel like just the smallest little piece of it all.
And this pairing of familiar cadence and the rock-diction of outrage is perhaps what's most unsettling about "Magic." It feels so comfortable that it's jarring to hear Bruce, his growling croon golden as ever, sing as he does on "Last to Die":
We're just countin' the miles you and me
We don't measure the blood we've drawn anymore
We just stack the bodies outside the door.
Who'll be the last to die for our mistake
The last to die for our mistake
Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break
Who'll be the last to die for our mistake?
That "last to die" business is a John Kerry quote, not about the Iraq war but taken from his testimony before the Fulbright Hearings in 1971 against the war in Vietnam.
Seriously, this is not subtlety, it's blown out fury on the world stage.
When not playing the throwback card, Bruce & the Band (again under the steady hands of producer Brandan O'Brien) craft some tunes with surprising sonics, like "Your Own Worst Enemy," whose chamber-pop lament recalls nothing so much as the Magnetic Fields, or the shadow Americana of the title track, which opens up the double-sided, finally apocalyptic proclamations of a magician amidst a kind of spooked up country twang.
One of the most rousing, arena-ready songs, "Livin' in the Future," repeats one line over and over: "none of this has happened yet." On a recent tour stop, Mr. Springsteen took a moment to rattle off a few of the things that we thought would never happen in America but have, among them rendition and torture. "Gypsy Biker," unabashedly a lament for Iraq, goes even further: "The favored march up over the hill/ In some fool's parade/ Shoutin' victory for the righteous / But there ain't much here but graves." If anything, the Mr. Springsteen of "Magic" is fuller than ever with pain and dissatisfaction, but also, of course (this is Bruce) of that shred of hope that America is a beautiful, crazy, amazing place still worth writing songs about–still worth a well-wrought rhythm, a nice simple rhyme, a great guitar lick.
The hidden final track, "Terry's Song," is a fittingly enigmatic end. It echoes the elegiac, somber moods of the Seeger Sessions as it memorializes Bruce's longtime personal assistant and friend Terry Magovern, who died this past July. It's a pointedly intimate end to an album that paints mainly in broad, big-hearted strokes across the troubled landscape of America, where there is so much mournful spirit, and so much longing for something like a redemption.