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The Paradox of ‘Magic’

by Pamela Leavey

I just finished reading the great piece on Bruce Springsteen’s new album “Magic“, that is in the Sunday N.Y. Times. “In Love With Pop, Uneasy With the World” describes Springsteen’s journey through music and the world of politics.

“Magic” is, musically, one of the most upbeat, accessible records he has made, even as its themes and stories make it one of his most political. Once again he is hitting the road as a presidential election heats up.

“I like coming out on those years,” he would tell me later, when we sat down to talk in a backstage dressing room after the rehearsal. “Whatever small little bit we can do, that’s a good time to do it.”

At almost 51 (in a few weeks), I’ve traveled through most of my adult life, either listening to Bruce Springsteen or not… But, in recent years, he’s permeated every CD player I own, and his lyrics have been firmly ingrained in my memory, like most fans of The Boss who can sing along to every tune he’s ever performed. There’s something about his lyrics and his melodies that just simply stick with you because behind nearly every song throughout his long and memorable career, there’s a message.

I haven’t heard all of “Magic” yet, but what I have heard has left me wanting for more. It’s Asbury Park revisted, as The Boss experiences “a reinfatuation with pop music.”

I went back to some forms that I either hadn’t used previously or hadn’t used a lot, which was actual pop productions,” he said. “I wrote a lot of hooks. That was just the way that the songs started to write themselves, I think because I felt free enough that I wasn’t afraid of the pop music. In the past I wanted to make sure that my music was tough enough for the stories I was going to tell.”

The paradox of “Magic” may be that some of its stories are among the toughest he has told. The album is sometimes a tease but rarely a joke. The title track, for instance, comes across as a seductive bit of carnival patter, something you might have heard on the Asbury Park boardwalk in the old days. A magician, his voice whispery and insinuating in a minor key, lures you in with descriptions of his tricks that grow more sinister with each verse. (“I’ve got a shiny saw blade/All I need’s a volunteer.”) “Trust none of what you hear/And less of what you see,” he warns. And the song’s refrain — “This is what will be” — grows more chilling as you absorb the rest of the album’s nuances and shadows.

You can always trust what you hear on a Bruce Springsteen record (irony, he notes, is not something he’s known for), but in this case it pays to listen closely, to make note of the darkness, so to speak, that hovers at the edge of the shiny hooks and harmonies. “I took these forms and this classic pop language and I threaded it through with uneasiness,” Mr. Springsteen said.

And while the songs on “Magic” characteristically avoid explicit topical references, there is no mistaking that the source of the unease is, to a great extent, political. The title track, Mr. Springsteen explained, is about the manufacture of illusion, about the Bush administration’s stated commitment to creating its own reality.

“This is a record about self-subversion,” he told me, about the way the country has sabotaged and corrupted its ideals and traditions. And in its own way the album itself is deliberately self-subverting, troubling its smooth, pleasing surfaces with the blunt acknowledgment of some rough, unpleasant facts.

“Magic” A. O. Scott of the N.Y.Times says, “picks up where “The Rising” left off and takes stock of what has happened in this country since Sept. 11.”

Then, the collective experiences of grief and terror were up front. Now those same emotions lurk just below the surface, which means that the catharsis of rock ’n’ roll uplift is harder to come by. The key words of “The Rising” were hope, love, strength, faith, and they were grounded in a collective experience of mourning. There is more loneliness in “Magic,” and, notwithstanding the relaxed pop mood, a lot less optimism.

The stories told in songs like “Gypsy Biker” and “The Devil’s Arcade” are vignettes of private loss suffered by the lovers and friends of soldiers whose lives were shattered or ended in Iraq. “The record is a tallying of cost and of loss,” Mr. Springsteen said. “That’s the burden of adulthood, period. But that’s the burden of adulthood in these times, squared.”

In conversation, Mr. Springsteen has a lot to say about what has happened in America over the last six years: “Disheartening and heartbreaking. Not to mention enraging” is how he sums it up. But his most direct and powerful statement comes, as you might expect, onstage. It is not anything he says or sings, but rather a piece of musical dramaturgy, the apparently simple, technical matter of shifting from one song to the next.

Scott describes the effort at Springsteen’s Monday rehearsal in Asbury Park, to keep “the sound going while changing instruments,” and switching from “The Rising” into their next number, “Last To Die”:

they must have gone over the segue from “The Rising” to their next number at least a half-dozen times.

“You’ve got to let that chord sustain. Everybody!” Mr. Springsteen urged. “It can’t die down.”

The guitarists had the extra challenge of keeping the sound going while changing instruments, a series of baton-relay sprints for the crew whose job was to assist with the switch, until a dissonant organ ring came in to signal a change of key and the thunderous opening of “Last to Die.” It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Mr. Springsteen’s take on the post-9/11 history of the United States can be measured in the space between the choruses of those two songs. The audience is hurled from a rousing exhortation (“Come on up to the rising”) to a grim, familiar question: “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?”

“That’s why we had to get that very right today,” he said later. “You saw us working on it. That thing has to come down like the world’s falling on you, that first chord. It’s got to screech at the end of ‘The Rising,’ and then it’s got to crack, rumble. The whole night is going to turn on that segue. That’s what we’re up there for right now, that 30 seconds.”

But the night does not end there. Onstage, “Last to Die” is followed, as it is on the album, by a song called “Long Walk Home.” In the first verse, the speaker travels to some familiar hometown spots and experiences an alienation made especially haunting by the language in which he describes it: “I looked into their faces/They were all rank strangers to me.” That curious, archaic turn of phrase — rank strangers — evokes an eerie old mountain lament of the same title, recorded by the Stanley Brothers.

“In that particular song a guy comes back to his town and recognizes nothing and is recognized by nothing,” Mr. Springsteen said. “The singer in ‘Long Walk Home,’ that’s his experience. His world has changed. The things that he thought he knew, the people who he thought he knew, whose ideals he had something in common with, are like strangers. The world that he knew feels totally alien. I think that’s what’s happened in this country in the past six years.”

And so the song’s images of a vanished small town life (“The diner was shuttered and boarded/With a sign that just said ‘gone’ “) turn into metaphors, the last of which is delivered with the clarity and force that has distinguished Mr. Springsteen’s best writing:

My father said “Son, we’re

lucky in this town

It’s a beautiful place to be born.

It just wraps its arms around you

Nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone.

You know that flag

flying over the courthouse

Means certain things are set in stone

Who we are, and what we’ll do

And what we won’t”

It’s gonna be a long walk home.

“That’s the end of the story we’re telling on a nightly basis,” Mr. Springsteen said. “Because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And that’s not the way it is right now.”

The Boss has always provided one hell of a ride for his fans. And “Magic” it seems is just another stop along the road of life for many of us who lived our loves with his music as a soundtrack through the decades. I wrote about “Last To Die” here a couple of days ago, and posted a YouTube that was an audio of the song inspired by our former Democratic nominee, John Kerry, who Springsteen campaigned for in ’04. Here’s a far better video of “Last To Die” from Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band’s performance on the Today Show on Friday:

And for Springsteen fans who can’t get enough… There’s more video on The Today Show concert page and here’s “Living In The Future”:

I must admit that in my younger days, I often longed to steal away from my seacoast home in Massachusetts, and venture down the Jersey coast for just one night at the famed Stone Pony where The Boss, Miami Steve Van Zandt and Southside Johnny would all take to the stage. It took years before I would actually see Springsteen perform live, twice during “The Rising” tour. I’m hooked more now on his music more so than I was in his earlier years, but his influence on my life has always been a touch of Magic. For that is what music is. Music is Magic. It transforms us. It takes the reality of life and our world and it makes it easier to bear whether we dream of one night rocking out at the Stone Pony or we loose ourselves in the melody of a song with a hidden meaning. Music is Magic. And in these troubled times, after 6 1/2 long years of BushCo, we need a little “Magic” from The Boss to lift our spirits and rally our call for hope once again.

One Response to “The Paradox of ‘Magic’”

  1. Can’t wait to listen to the album. He’s coming to DC and I can’t wait to see him.

    There is one thing about Springsteen history that I’ll never understand. Springsteen’s first album to go to #1 was the River in 1980. You know what week it first topped the charts? The week Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. Go figure.