BPP Music Review: Bruce Springsteen's 'Magic'

Bruce Springsteen

Enough rock 'n' roll to last a lifetime Brad Barket/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Brad Barket/Getty Images

Most music fans remember their first concert. I know I do. The year was 1985. Ronald Reagan was president, Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs were patrolling Miami Harbor, and Born in the USA was on top of the charts. I was eight years old, and my parents took me to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. I've been a fan ever since, and although (unlike my cousin-in-law Jason) I've never waited in a hotel lobby for hours just to shake Bruce's hand, I do think I'm pretty qualified to review his latest record.

Overall, this album is nothing special. But it's the vehicle for something very special.

Pretty much every review I've seen of Magic has had the same conclusion: It's a return to good old fashioned Springsteen & the E Street Band rock 'n' roll, straight forward, simple, fun, etc. In a lot of ways, it's a bad sign when every review of an album says basically the same thing. You might say, "But what if every review says the album is great?" Well, a truly great album would be different enough that it would turn someone off. Nothing on Magic, however, is different enough to do that.

I could go into detail about each song, but like I said, the other reviews out there have said it already. I just feel that Bruce has already made enough great rock 'n' roll to last more than a generation. If I want to put the windows down and rock out to Bruce, I already have about 10 albums to chose from. I'm not going to reach for Magic. When I first heard "John Henry" off of Bruce's transcendent 2006 Seeger Sessions album, it was an awakening. Magic provides no such inspiration.

Now I don't want to sound completely negative. I'm comparing this to other Springsteen work, which necessitates a higher bar. Compared to most of the pop crap out there, this record still rocks. But I do have a theory on what happened. I think Bruce wanted to go on tour with the E Street Band one more time before they got too old, because the live shows he puts on with them are the best in the history of recorded time. But Bruce is a proud man and a proud musician who would not be keen on touring without a new album, because he needs to remain vital, and an E Street Band tour without a new album might smack of a dearth of ideas.

So Bruce put together Magic, which I'm viewing as the means to an end, in this case the end being a tour with the E Street Band, which just kicked off. (I'll be there at Madison Square Garden on October 18.) Right now it's scheduled to run through mid-December, but all indications are that the tour will extend well into next year, with second stops at cities across the country.

In short, if you want some great new rock music to throw on your iPod, look elsewhere. But if you want to see a concert that will rock your world, get tickets for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The kids on the scene still can't match them on stage, and this may be your last chance.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

I picked up my copy of 'Magic' yesterday, listened to it a time or two, and my life has not drastically changed. It is true that this album may not necessarily break the mold of rock music, although we all know that Bruce is capable of doing so. Similarly, my strongest reaction was to get more excited about the new tour. I imagined what song might go first, which will Bruce and the E Street Band have us all singing back and punching the air (I DON'T punch the air at concerts, but I do for Bruce.) I can see how this album can be viewed as pretty good material for a great tour. Then again, I would not discount it entirely.

There is something powerful about the E Street Band playing together, whether it is in 1975 or 2007. And when they do get together, not just live but in the studio, it is going to be great. Also the lyrics behind the songs, which are driven by Bruce's passion and political views remain current and relevant. I may not agree with all of his opinions, but I know that when he performs it is because he has something to say that is worth listening to.

Personally, I would not want to be caught tossing out words like "last tour" and "too old." With that group, as soon as you say it you will surely be proven wrong. No one while watching them perform would say they are ready to be put out to pasture.

Sent by Alison | 12:31 PM | 10-3-2007

Who is Dan Pashman, and what sort of credentials does he have to review a Springsteen record?! Or ANY record, for that matter...?

Check out Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly for actual reviews of Magic.

Sent by Kat | 1:11 PM | 10-4-2007

ouch! kat...i've been reading, cooking and listening to music for a very long time...no phd but i have knowledge that goes beyond the traditional soundbite phrase that questions a person' "credentials"....so far, this is still a free country and i will continue to gain insight from many sources who obviously have experience even though they may lack a chest full of shiny medals!!! personally, i agree with him but what do i know...i'm just the 100 pound well-informed person in the room!

Sent by jay | 2:55 PM | 10-4-2007

Mr. Pashman, I think you should listen to the record again....and again...you obviously missed something.

Sent by Ed Sargent | 9:44 PM | 10-4-2007

Strangely enough this review of a Springsteen fan proves that even Springsteen's fans fail to listen and read between the lines. I really believe that this record is A JEWEL! Is the smartest record I have ever listened. Lyrics have 2 ways of interpretation, music is old-new(!!), the covers are surprises if you look a bit closer..., all jubilant, uptempo songs mention or imply death and loss. Guys, we must deeply dive into this masterpiece before we start writing about it.

Sent by Kostas | 11:21 AM | 10-5-2007

I think it's important for me to repeat one of the sentences in my original review: "I'm comparing this to other Springsteen work, which necessitates a higher bar. Compared to most of the pop crap out there, this record still rocks." This review was far from a pan.

That being said, I have a question for those of you quick to say that I've missed something in "Magic." In your opinions, which songs on this album contain elements never before heard in a Bruce Springsteen song, and what are those elements exactly? I can go through every previous Bruce album and point to numerous new elements in each. New lyrical styles, new topics, new musical directions, etc. What I admire most about Bruce as an artist is that he constantly pushes himself to cover new ground. I think this is the first Bruce album I've heard that contains no new elements. That doesn't mean it sucks, it just means it's not essential. It's still Bruce, it's still good. But I think it's his first truly derivative album.

However, I'm open to being persuaded otherwise. So I ask you: What new elements do you observe in this album, and where do you observe them?

Sent by Dan Pashman, BPP Producer | 12:26 PM | 10-5-2007

Interesting. I've seen some frank pans of this record, especially implicating the production values. On the other hand, this is a fabulous melodic and multi-layered record, IMHO. It took a marathon of re-listening to get below the sheen of big guitar and big production...but it is notably edgy and dark underneath, and laced with the kind of small vignettes that illustrate how bad decision, policy, and political deception has undermined the promised land.

It's a great record, in my opinion. I am not a "everything Bruce does is perfect" listener. I've not been this enthralled with a mainstream rock record in a long, long time. A lot more than meets the ear.

Sent by Paul Chaney | 3:41 PM | 10-5-2007

I too have been surfing around reading reviews of this album. I really liked the Midnight on the Forecastle blog post saying it is "the most historically accurate emotional exegesis of the last six years I've come across. [...] Magic strikes me as a fully digested expression of the hammerlock of misery, loss and heartache that the Bush Years have relentlessly inflicted on America."

I think you are correct, Dan, in that nothing sounds radically new on this album. But I think the fact that "You'll Be Comin' Down" is derivative of "Lucky Town" is completely deliberate, which is part of what makes the album so smart. As only Clint Eastwood could subvert the western genre in "Unforgiven," only Springsteen can subvert, quote, hint at, cut and paste his earlier works. Sounds the same, but the intercontextualization is new. And considering the nature of the album's themes, it was probably the right decision to go traditionalist. Who knows. But as a fan I love all of the echos and I think it is his best album since Tom Joad.
By the way, anybody interested in reading a completely clueless review should check out the MSNBC piece by Stuart Levine. It's hilarious. That the title track is about the deceptive malevolence of the Bush administration is a fact absolutely lost on Levine: "Whether he was emotionally scarred by a magician as a young boy, or he just has it out for them, Springsteen sees these tricksters as deceitful and reprehensible, their entertainment value be damned." So hilarious.

Sent by thomas | 5:31 PM | 10-5-2007

Thomas, I really like the idea of this "Unforgiven" analogy. I'll give the album another chance with this in mind.

Sent by Dan Pashman | 6:58 PM | 10-5-2007

I think I have been lulled into some false expectations concerning the new Springsteen work. Obviously, the bar has been set pretty high based on some fantastic live performances by the Boss and E Street in the past years since the release of The Rising. There really isn't any groundbreaking material here with this new work. I see it more as a retrospective. Don't get me wrong, there is some good work here. But nothing that I would say is great. Unfortunately, the dynamics of the world have changed a bit since they hit the nail on the head with the effort of The Rising. Some of this work really has some roots and similarities to a lot tracks from The River, and even Nebraska. Overall, a good effort, and certainly worth the listen, but all in all based on some great live performances in the past, this a bit of a journeyman album. I look at Springsteen albums like fine wine, and perhaps years down the road this album will be more appreciated with some age, but I'll be looking forward to another great live experience from the Boss.

Sent by Ron | 5:26 PM | 10-6-2007

i listened again. i must say that if i wanted to get a springsteen fix it would not be from his latest magic...yes, he's wonderfully prolific and talented...BUT...i think it's like my long standing love of bob dylan...he's put out lots of great stuff but it's the dylan originals that i gravitate towards...i'm not entirely sure if it's nostalgia, the distinctive music and lyrics or qualities of "first time" nuance ...i think once your heart draws you to a specific creative experience there's no need to prioritize it...it just happens all by itself for whatever reason. enjoy it all!

Sent by jay | 10:52 AM | 10-7-2007

I grew up listening to Bruce. I wore out two cassette copies of "Born In The USA" while a cadet at West Point in the 1980's. I will never find out if it's possible to wear out a CD of Magic, though. I felt like I was being "sung at" or guitar played "AT" and yes, I too felt Bruce was trying to cash in on the nostalgic sounds of long ago in his career.

But at the end of the day (or concert) he's Still "The Boss"

Sent by Bob Smith | 10:30 PM | 10-8-2007

that msnbc review of this album is a joke, totally missed the entire point (the lynching reference within the song is a giant clue that this is not about a magician), sometimes I feel reviewers don't even look at the lyrics or understand metaphors, allegories etc. I originally tried to find reviews to get a better understanding of what others thought bruce was trying to say on this album. I think the mercury news actually did the best job at trying to elucidate this. There are only a few songs I can rock out to on here, but many more that make me actually feel something more, it took me about three listens to realize it, but now I love it.

Sent by nick | 1:10 AM | 10-10-2007

Unbelievable is all I can say about Mr. Pashman's opinion as to the motivation of Bruce Springsteen's recording Magic. If he wanted to tour, he would just tour. The obvious motivation in the recording of these songs is the destruction of the American ideal at the hands of the neocon powers in this country. That being said, Bruce has laid out these ideas in subtle and direct ways in showing the effects of their ill fated war in Iraq and the death of American principles through the War on Terror. The lament of a dead soldier in Gypsy Biker along with the return of a mamed warrior in Devil's Arcade give the listener the pain of the war in personal terms. Springsteen's use of allegory and image is no better than in songs like Magic and Long Walk Home where the magic he uses is the slight of hand used by the Republicans to fool the working class into war and bad tax cuts and the town in Long Walk Home is clearly a metaphor for America and its ideals. Now that is easily gleaned by a couple listens of the record but is obviously apparent in the words of Bruce Springsteen in the many interviews he has given in the past weeks. Do your homework and learn how to listen to music and poetry Mr. Pashman

Sent by David Harper | 1:08 AM | 10-14-2007

David,
Thanks for your comment. I'd like to respond...
First off, you say the metaphors in this album are "easily gleaned by a couple of listens." I agree. The difference between us is that I consider easy gleaning to be a weakness, not a strength. It's not that I didn't understand this album, it's that I felt like the metaphors were so thinly veiled as to be hitting me over the head most of the time.

Also, you write, "If he wanted to tour, he would just tour." Perhaps. But if he did, it would be the first time in about 25 years that he had "just toured." In the past 25 years Bruce has always toured to support a new album, or in one case in honor of an induction in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame and reunion with the E Street Band. Also there were a couple of short tours to support causes, the Amnesty International tour in the late 80's and the Vote for Change tour in 2004 coming to mind. He has never in that time "just toured" extensively, without something new and vital to justify it, so it would be a break from his MO to do so now.

Finally, I do wish to once again state that I don't hate this album. To the contrary, I enjoy it and continue to listen to it and am very much looking forward to hearing how these songs sound live when I see Bruce at MSG in FOUR DAYS!! (Woohoo!!) My basic point, though, is that this album contains nothing new, and for that reason, I'm not blown away by it. (Many of the political themes that you find impressive are also on his album "Devils and Dust.") But I take the last 25 years as my basis and maintain that without this album there would not be a tour, and for that reason, I am grateful for "Magic."

Sent by Dan Pashman | 8:53 AM | 10-14-2007

I have been a Springsteen fan since I first saw him in Houston in a club called Liberty Hall in 1974. I was very lucky to see him in a club environment before he hit it big!

I bought Magic today and sat down and
read all the lyrics as I listened to the songs. Heavy stuff. When I listen to it again I may hear some of that big E Street Band sound, and hear it more from a musical point of view.

I feel it is a very political album, and a great one. It reminds me of The River or Nebraska content-wise but with much more uplifting music. The title cut is my favorite.

Sent by Chris Conn | 12:36 AM | 10-16-2007

Magic CD.. first listen... hummm not bad. Second listen... I like that one... third listen. that one is really good.....fouth listen... Damn, can't stop thinking about that one. This is a great CD. Buy it and listen with an open mind and you will be hooked. Thanks D Harper for your comments, you are right on buddy!

Sent by Davy P | 10:38 AM | 10-19-2007

This really is a fine album that grows and deepens with each new listen. Look at the framing, how Springsteen opens it with "Radio Nowhere" asking "Is there anybody alive out there?" and winds down with "Devil's Arcade" in which drummer Max Weinberg pounds out the last heartbeats of a fallen soldier, who finds afterlife in the love of those who survive him. The following tune, "Terry's Song" which eulogizes the boss's real-life friend Terry McGovern, echoes the love conquers fear and death theme (although the song is something of a bonus track). To suggest as one poster did that the album is little more than a good excuse to tour with the old E Street buddies is to overlook elements of significant power on which the record is built: the way an impassioned suitor in "I'll Work For Your Love" sees in a pretty but downtrodden bartender the promise of salvation he robustly compares to the redemption achieved by the passion and resurrection of Christ; the sly way Springsteen takes on the Bush administration's wrecklessness in "Living In The Future," in which the "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" party feel of the song is itself becomes a metaphor for the American apathy that helped give oxygen to Bush's transgressions. "Magic", "Gypsy Biker," "The Last To Die" and "Devil's Arcade" are all fierce and intelligent anti-war songs that are all the more effective for steering clear of overt references to the responsible parties. A related song, "Long Walk Home" at first sounds like "My Home Town" on steroids (provided mainly by Mighty Max's thumping, whip-cracking drums). Then its thematic layers emerge: at once its an alienated returning soldier's attempt to reconnect with the ideals forged as a youth in his hometown; on another level it can be seen as the "long walk home" America itself must take after having been steered far from its virtues by political powers that be. In addition providing high-calorie food for thought. "Magic" also provides some great playing, its melodies, fills and solos carefully considered yet presented with an air of sponaneity and abandon. I think this is Springsteen's best album since "Darkness On The Edge of Town". I can't stop listening to it.

Sent by Jeff R. | 2:25 AM | 10-28-2007

I was 14 and in high school in 1974 when I first heard my first Springsteen song, Incident on 57th Street. Over the years I have heard his music and message evolve. Magic is another step in the evolution of Bruce Springsteen. I have had conversations with many other fans that say he just does not have it like he used to, that he does not rock out any more, I disagree. I usually say that he is not going to put out another Born to Run. That was a once in a lifetime piece of work. I mean, look how long it actually took him to record it and finally when Jon Landau came into play did it finalize. I do agree that he does use pieces of songs and reworks them into new songs. He has done this before even as far back as Born to Run. I can remember hearing the lyrics of Backstreets sung in the melody of She's the one. I can recall at least 2 different songs that Springsteen uses the line about the "graveyard boots and smilin skull ring". Even with the reworking of of lyrics, Springsteen manages to pull it off. The real treat is when he shows that he can still create lyrical magic, like on this album. Some of the songs to me are reminicent of Wild and the Innocent lyriclly..There may be some that disagree with me, but the one thing that has grown and matured is Springsteen. Lets face it, when the Beach Boys are in their 60's and singing about surfin...well...so..in the case of Springsteen, at 58, he can sing about the girls in their summer clothes and still sound great doing it. He will never be too old to rock. As others have wrote, Magic is the kind of album that the more you listen the more you enjoy it. The more you sing along and remember songs. In the recent RS interview, Bruse said he wrote some of the songs during thr Seeger Sessions and some were written during The Rising, you can almost tell. Livin in the Future can sound a little like Waiting on a Sunny Day...and NO....Radio Nowhere is not 867-5309...Lets enjoy Bruce and the band while we still can. Lets enjoy Magic as a strong effort from a gifted songwriter..and listen to it a few times...it does grow on you....

Sent by Joe Stef | 10:05 PM | 10-29-2007

Mr. Pashman,
I just stumbled uopn this forum, and, I realize that my comments are post-mortem at this juncture. However, I feel moved to mention some things that I am hearing in "Magic" that heretofore were somewhat absent from Bruce's previous recordings. First, attune to his guitar playing: He is giving us nuances of chordal changes and voices that show a deeper maturity in creating music in general. His solos are aggressive, and not as melodic as before. This is not a complaint, but a note on a different instrumental voice . Next, there are the "hooks." No pretty synths, harmonicas,etc. announce the songs-big change. "Radio Nowhere" is the hardest rocker with a message that he has recorded to date. Previous commentary songs were not given the roadhouse treatment as fully, though there were hints on "The Rising." Usual subject matter for the bar-band cover fodder like "Ramrod,' and "Darlington County" were guy, girl, open road, get outa this place sentiments. Further, as this point has been mentioned by many boss-o-philes, guitar tone, arrangement, and presence are pervasive on this recording, more so than on any previous recording.

Sent by George Kelly | 1:29 AM | 1-21-2008

Joe Stef said "I do agree that he does use pieces of songs and reworks them into new songs. He has done this before even as far back as Born to Run. I can remember hearing the lyrics of Backstreets sung in the melody of She's the one. I can recall at least 2 different songs that Springsteen uses the line about the "graveyard boots and smilin skull ring". Even with the reworking of of lyrics, Springsteen manages to pull it off."
Well, this is possibly the single most facinating thing about Springsteen's creative process for me; the way he does not let go of a subject or an image until he has thoroughly examined it, re-worked it, and presented it to his own satisfaction, sometimes from several angles. It is reminiscent (to me,maybe because of the medium I work in) of a painter, the way he may produce a series of similar but different images, or the way a visual artist works with sketches...I think this latest album is Magical in its ability to bridge the old with the new, it is part of the on-going dialogue, and as in any dialogue, sometimes we need to backtrack in order to go forward. One thing is certain, Bruce has more to say. I look forward to the next album, which will help put this one in perspective....

....And sometimes its only after we've put a Springsten album down for awhile (weeks, months, years) and then come back to it that we find the real meaning in it. I put Tunnel Of Love down for 15yrs, and only now (that I am the age Bruce was when he wrote it!) do I love it.
Time will tell.

Sent by Jenn | 9:04 PM | 3-5-2008

(First thing: Review of the album is bogus. Bruce does not make albums as an excuse to tour....like someone asked "who is Dan Pashman and what are his credentials?" To that I add "who does he know or to whom is he related to get this gig?")

Are there other rocks bands consistently addressing political issues the way Bruce is? Other than Jon Steward I'm not sure many newspeople are as aware as Mr. Springsteen. Thank goodness that he is here, now, keeping watch.
The first time I heard "Magic" was driving up to CT for the opening night of the tour...Oct 2nd. It took about 2 complete times before I realized how truly awesome this album is....the guitar work, his voice and especially the lyrics show that Bruce is still in his prime. I have tickets to 4 more shows (Houston and NJ)and each and every night will be amazing...

Sent by P. Henry | 8:29 PM | 3-16-2008

Mr. Pashman,

I understand and accept anyone's opinion about "Magic". Love it or hate it or anywhere in between is good with me. I do take offense, however, with hypothesizing that Bruce has made an album because he was too proud to tour without a new album. (he actually did this on the reunion tour, remember??). These types of comments border on accusatory, have absolutely no foundation of truth to them and have no place in a review of the actual album. If this is really your theory for the album's existense, then it doesn't belong in the review of the album, it belongs in a discussion with your friends at the bar.

Also, what we fail to understand about artists is that they have created something out of nothing. It's not a cerebral selection of items that get put on an album. They are organic representations of what an artist has in his soul at the time. A consorted effort of creation to try to display what an artist wishes to express. Our hindsight reviews of an artist's work are always guilty of being too linear and unaware that they were borne of the ether.

Cheers.

Sent by Bernie Levert | 10:13 PM | 4-10-2008