Bruce Springsteen - Magic
Getting straight down to business, I'd say it's pretty unlikely that this one will give Springsteen another In League With Paton album of the year gong, although I don't suppose the great man will care too much about that. Ultimately, I much prefer the outstanding Seeger Sessions band Live in Dublin set from earlier in the year. It's churlish to complain though when Springsteen is clearly a rejuvenated force. He'd virtually retired in 2001 when he felt compelled to respond to the tragic events of 9/11. Since then, he's barely paused for breath, touring 'The Rising' with the same hardworking spirit that informed the juggernaut 'Born In The USA' tour, completing the piecemeal 'Devils and Dust' solo set, forming The Seeger Sessions band for a foray into the American folk tradition and taking it to its logical conclusion on the ensuing tour, transforming his own back catalogue in the process. It's been the most productive phase of his career so far, with Springsteen crediting his audience with the intelligence to follow him on some of his less predictable journeys.
'Magic' is not one of those journeys though. It's a retreat to what is now the relative safety of the E Street Band, and a conscious effort to recapture the modernised rock sound of 'The Rising', whilst foresaking its weighty concerns in favour of a more concise, unburdened vision. At its best, this is no bad thing at all, and the album is blessed with a clutch of major songs. 'Girls In Their Summer Clothes' and 'I'll Work For Your Love' return to the Spector preoccupations that informed 'Born To Run' whilst 'Long Walk Home' and 'Gypsy Biker' are massive powerhouse anthems - the kind of song that would sound embarrassing in any other hands, but which Springsteen's grit and integrity manage to make genuine.
There's much less trickery and gimmickery here than on 'The Rising', in spite of Springsteen's decision to again employ Brendan O'Brien as producer. Whilst the sound is drier and more organic, there is still the sense that O'Brien is doing his level best to obscure the E Street Band as a unit, increasing the emphasis on thudding drums and rhythmically uninteresting strummed guitars at the expense of Roy Bittan's piano or Danny Federici's organ. 'Livin' In The Future' sounds entertaining and has a deliciously slinky chorus, but the production places it dangerously close to the MOR funk of Maroon 5. 'You'll Be Comin' Down' is somewhat underwhelming too, more than a little clunky and plodding. There's also not nearly enough of Nils Lofgren's expressive slide guitar, whilst Clarence Clemons is restricted to short but intense interjections on the saxophone. Strangely, 'Magic' actually sounds much closer to 'Lucky Town' (the more unfairly maligned of Springsteen's non-E Street albums of the early 90s) than any of the E Street albums. Some of these songs, particularly 'Long Walk Home', 'Gypsy Biker', 'Last To Die' and 'Radio Nowhere' are going to sound spectacular live, when the band is given more space to, ahem, work its magic.
The great variety and experimentation that characterised Springsteen's vocal performances on the Seeger Sessions album has also largely been abandoned in favour of a more stark contrast between belting with conviction and the more sombre tones of the title track or the uncredited 'Terry's Song' (a heartfelt tribute to his friend and colleague Terry McGovern who died recently). Springsteen sounds particularly stark and resigned on the title track, which is spare and beautiful.
It certainly isn't his greatest album lyrically either, occasionally sounding a little short on creative ideas. 'Radio Nowhere' is a great pop song, but it's hardly a new sentiment to lament modern American radio, and M Ward celebrated the golden era of radio with more insight on 'Transistor Radio'. It's brilliantly infectious though, and likely to provide Springsteen with his first real hit single in some time. Elsewhere, he occasionally seems stuck with benign platitudes or rather obvious statements, although I appreciate the melancholy sway of 'Girls In Their Summer Clothes' or the resigned longing of 'Long Walk Home'. Many criticised the apocalyptic and Biblical imagery of 'The Rising' as cliched and a means of avoiding challenging the more Patriotic element of his audience, but I'd take that dignified attempt at a poetic response over much of 'Magic'. 'Last To Die' may be the most adventurous moment lyrically here, but there's nothing close to his most recent masterpiece 'Long Time Comin' from 'Devils and Dust', with its rich, Cormac McCarthy-inspired manipulation of language.
The pre-release buzz for 'Magic' characterised it as a back-to-basics rock album and for once the press material is not entirely misleading. It's the most lightweight record Springsteen has made in some time, and far less concerned with contemporary context than his recent work. It doesn't quite have the playful zest of 'The River' though. For me, this album is at its best when it gets as soulful as it is hard-hitting. The slightly melancholy leanings of 'Girls In Their Summer Clothes' and 'Your Own Worst Enemy' invest them with greater emotional force.
The closing 'Devil's Arcade' is the only hint that Sprinsteen might ever return to the expansive, epic vision that informed 'Born To Run' and its flipside 'Darkness On The Edge of Town', but its a mesh of swirling atmospherics and meandering guitars rather than anything more focused or concerted. 'Magic' can be a little brutal and unsubtle at times, and there's certainly room for more light and shade. It is, however, easily digestible and occasionally fiery and thrilling.