Least to Most; Bruce – Magic

“I tried to combine personal and political, so you can read into the songs either way. You can read the record as a comment on what’s been going on, or you can read it just as relationship songs.”

bruce_springsteen_-_magicIn December 2016 Bruce sat down with Brendan O’Brien at his home, handed him a book of lyrics and then played the tunes on his guitar, offering the producer the pick of the litter. The two then decamped to Atlanta again and with a core band of Springsteen, Weinberg, Bittan and Tallent, laid the basic tracks for the album. Other band members were called in to lay down their parts as needed and sessions were complete within two months. Another example of the pair’s more precise recording practice, it meant that without the opportunity to spend protracted amounts of time exploring alternative avenues and ideas, all effort and concentration focused on the one group of songs and bringing them to perfection. Shorn of the fiddles of Seeger Sessions and the acoustic dirge of Devils and Dust, the resulting Magic is the high benchmark of Springsteen’s second chapter and bursts with a fire and passion that sets a lot of his work in the shade.

I’ll be clear – as if it wasn’t already – I fucking love this album. The songs here are harder and sharper than on The Rising, the E Street Band – during its late peak – is playing tighter than a duck’s arse and the result is a joy to behold. The sound is ridiculously lush and there’s more revealed with every listen; the mandolin on ‘Magic’, Federici’s organ on ‘Livin’ In The Future’, the moody atmospherics of ‘Devil’s Arcade’ but I’m jumping ahead….

It starts with guitars. A thousand guitars and pounding drums, as ‘Radio Nowhere‘ leads an impassioned, energetic blast of all the E Street’s finest qualities and Bruce growling out his call to arms “Is there anybody alive out there?” against a thumping beat and euphoric blast from Clarence Clemons’ sax. Magic is Bruce and the E Street tuned in and meaning business as they bore through a new Springsteen classic and straight into ‘You’ll Be Coming Down’ which sounds like a blast of Bruce’s sound from earlier decades:

Indeed, Bruce spoke of how for this album he tried to get back to his earlier, romantic sounds last heard on Born To Run and there’s a wealth of nostalgia in the sound*.

“There’s some classic Sixties pop forms. California-rock influences –Pet Sounds and a lot of Byrds. I wanted to take the productions that create the perfect pop universes and then subvert them with the lyrics – fill them with the hollowness and the fear, the uneasiness of these very uneasy times.”

Take ‘Girls In Their Summer Clothes’ – which, apparently, Bruce had little interest in but O’Brien pushed for its inclusion – as an example of this; the doubling up of Bruce’s voice for the first time in goodness knows how long against a gorgeous backdrop (and a great rhythm guitar part) . Or the horns of ‘Livin In The Future’ that blast like a Freeze-out on a certain avenue. Or the out-and-out joy of ‘I’ll Work For Your Love‘.

But even here, the fire lurks beneath the surface. Bruce is angry and the pain and disbelief are shot through every song no matter how much he may have tried to allow the songs to be taken without them. There’s the groundskeeper who “opened the gates and let the wild dogs run” in ‘Livin..’ or  how the “city of peace has crumbled, our book of faith’s been tossed” in ‘I’ll Work For Your Love’, there’s no getting around it and it makes for some of his finest and most pointed lyrics in a long time. Certainly the best of Bruce V.2

I’ve mentioned before that  ‘Gypsy Biker’ shares a lot of ground with ‘Shut Out The Light’. The earlier track was one of Springsteen’s Vietnam tunes, ‘Gypsy Biker’ is one of a more modern war – Johnny gets to pull out his Ford and polish up the chrome in the former, the biker in the latter is coming home in a coffin; “Sister Mary sits with your colors”. It’s one of his best.

I remember at the time of release, Magic was referred to as being about “love in the time of Bush” **. There’s no direct references here, no mention of specific wars or Bush (though it may well be his “boot heels clickin’ like the barrel of a pistol spinnin’ round” on ‘Livin In The Future’) but he doesn’t need to.  The threat he felt in 2006 is there throughout.  Perhaps its most telling on the beautiful title track. Quiet, gentle guitar and chamberlin undercut with strings and Van Zandt’s mandolin make for a soothing, hypnotic stroll or dance as Springsteen lists ‘magic’ tricks but then it’s there in the last verse:

“Now there’s a fire down below
But it’s comin’ up here
So leave everything you know
And carry only what you fear
On the road the sun is sinkin’ low
There’s bodies hangin’ in the trees
This is what will be, this is what will be.”

If there was any doubt left about this album’s thrust it’s obliterated by what comes next. ‘Last To Die‘ takes it’s lyrics from John Kerry’s testimony on Vietnam (“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”) and straps it to a howling, fierce track.

The album’s closing track*** ‘Devil’s Arcade’ is a dark bruiser of a tune that’s perhaps the most literal on it. A lover’s recall of portentous earlier memories and passion before her love enlists and winds up being wounded “the cool desert morning, then nothin’ to save, just metal and plastic where your body caved” and in a hospital while she waits for his touch –  Weinberg hammers home the rhythmic thump against the repeated “The beat of your heart, the beat of your heart”.

Again; it’s one of the finest things Springsteen has written and this album is chock-full of them. It’s strange to listen to this album again (though it’s rarely out of rotation) now as we find ourselves staring down even darker corridors than GW had lead the world. Then, as now, this album’s warmth and spirit remain a lighthouse; there is love, there is light and it needn’t be the monsters that call the tune, we have the choice.

Highlights: ‘Radio Nowhere’, ‘Livin In The Future’, ‘Your Own Worst Enemy’, ‘Gypsy Biker’, ‘Magic’, ‘Last To Die’, ‘Devil’s Arcade’.

*Something which would lead to a burst of writing just as the Magic sessions wound down and form the basis of Working On A Dream.

**Not the working title of a late-night Gabriel García Márquez adaptation.

***Officially. Following the death of Springsteen’s long-time assistant Terry Magovern, ‘Terry’s Song’ was added.

14 thoughts on “Least to Most; Bruce – Magic

    • Thanks.
      Couldn’t agree more; not only is it sad that WOAD followed Magic but it’s also a shame that it was the final pairing with O’Brien. I think the two worked brilliantly together.

  1. What I find that you and I have in common is a love of Springsteen. But we don’t necessarily love the same songs or themes or albums. I bought this album when it came out because had tickets to that tour. And when I listened to it, apart from a few songs, I was singularly disappointed and unimpressed. It just didn’t do much for me, I’m afraid. That said, I’ll give it another spin (after I get through the 66 tracks on Tracks that you made me listen to.) 🙂 But unless I was only half-listening the first time, this one is just not up there with any of the others we’ve recently been discussing.

    • I think that’s the joy of this sort of thing, really. There’s not really a ‘bad’ album in the lot and it comes down to which one has more of a connection on a personal level, I guess.
      This one came along at a time when I, too, was fired up about the state of the world and where politicians were sending us with their obstinate stupidity (though in comparison to today…) so hit home at the right moment and still gets a lot more play by me than those already listed and – along with being a great accompaniment on a drive – is also a great headphones album.
      If a Springsteen Newbie asked me which of his latter-day stuff (post E Street Reunion) they should listen to first, I’d single this one out over Dream, Devils and Dust, Seeger and anything since.
      Still, there’s six to go….

      • I think for me it’s how an album ‘hits’ me, or resonates with me, over and above any particular content. That’s true, Springsteen or no. Does the album click on all levels? Am I going from one really good song to another? Does it flow well? I confess that’s happening now as I listen to ‘Tracks’ which I think I might have misremembered as being somehow lesser. It certainly is not.

      • Hmmm. That’s too tempting a challenge to refuse. If a newbie asked me for an introduction – and they liked jazzy stuff – I’d go with “The Wild, The Innocent.” If not, then “Born in the USA.”

        Latter-day? “The Rising.” Fairly accessible, good tunes, universal themes, etc.

  2. My latest revisionist review – So now I’ve just finished listening to this and yes, I underestimated it. I may not have the same depth of love for it as you but there is a lot of good stuff. I hadn’t bought a Bruce album in quite some time when I got this and so I think I may at some level be saying to myself, Is this the “Born To the Wild, The Innocent and the Asbury Park” album I’ve been waiting for? (If you catch my drift.) So, that’s on me.

    But taking it as it is, there’s some really good stuff. As I’ve mentioned probably too many times before, I primarily come to Bruce for the fun. So while there is some heaviosity (Woody Allen word) I get a real charge out of something like “Girls in their summer clothes.” Funny how a phrase can be so evocative. Woman have 8,000,000 summer outfits, guys have shorts and flip-flops.

    Anyway, I look forward to your Top Five at which point I’ll set you straight with the correct Top Five. 😀

    • I think it’s always going to be tricky to listen to an established artist’s new work without expectations… I don’t, for example, get all that excited about Dylan’s latest covers album phase.
      Hadn’t thought about the evocative nature of “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” – good call.
      I’m pretty sure that my top five won’t be deemed ‘correct’ given that I’ve already covered The Wild, The Innocent…

      • It would be quite useful on this side of the pond for Dylan to revert back to his protest days right about now.

        Totally willing to give you a pass on ‘Innocent’ just because you’re doing a fabulous job on this series. Totally enjoying it. I suspect it would be pretty easy to suss out your Top Five but I’ll refrain from that and allow myself to be surprised. 😀

      • Hm, I’m curious now; maybe put your guesses in a sealed envelope for a later reveal?
        I sometimes wonder if his depriving us of new original material isn’t Dylan’s own form of protest – ‘I’m not writing a single note while that bloody twat is in power’ sort of thing.

      • That would be fun. However, I confess I don’t remember your entire prior list. Any chance you could recap what you’ve done to date in some sort of list? Otherwise, I need to go back to all your posts. And then there are some non-Bruce ones in between.

  3. Pingback: Least to Most; Bruce – I’m just around the corner to the light of day | Mumbling About…

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