BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: MAGIC
Bruce Springsteen’s Magic is a journey into the darkness of the ‘American night’; a portrait of a country mired in confusion, its value-systems broken down, its soul in torment. As a writer, Springsteen is often misunderstood. This is partly because he often casts his narratives in the form of raucous rock and roll workouts and partly because he chooses to speak through a series of narrators. It’s possible to experience his music on a purely visceral level. Reunited here as he is with the rich and expansive-sounding E-Street band, with more than three decades of playing together behind them, he guides us through a series of ecstatic peaks and emotional troughs using familiar musical tropes – the chiming ‘wall of sound’ of guitars, washes of organ, lyrical piano and pensive sax passages. It is a kind of all-enveloping sound first perfected on the Born To Run album, which attempts to subsume all of those disparate strands of rock which have inspired its leader – 50s rock and roll and doo wop, 60s soul, 70s funk – along with his more ‘intellectual’ interest in song as literature as purveyed by Dylan, his antecedents and some of his contemporaries. The result is a dense format which requires considerable attention in order to appreciate fully. Despite his image as a crowd-pleasing populist, much of Springsteen’s work is complex, allusive and full of subtle nuances. Although his role as social commentator has grown over the years, so much so that some see him as a kind of ‘conscience of liberal America’, he has rarely resorted to easy platitudes. Despite the tributes he’s paid to John Steinbeck in a number of past songs, as a writer he’s more Saul Bellow than Steinbeck – his work is intense, often psychologically ambivalent and grounded in the minutae of American cultural identity.
Magic is – like much of his previous two albums The Rising and Devils And Dust – profoundly influenced by the political and social climate of twenty first century America in the so-called ‘Post 9/11’ era. As ever he sings through a range of personas. What unites them is a mood of disillusionment, of disaffection. Springsteen’s characters feel misplaced, cheated by circumstances, yet often frustrated – unable to actually change anything. They are prisoners of the past, with uncertain futures. The album’s mesmerising opener, Radio Nowhere, is dynamic slab of fast-moving rock and roll, driven by an edge of desperation and an urge for renewal. From the gut-wrenching Thunder Road onwards, Springsteen has often evoked the spirit of rock and roll as a force for redemption. Radio Nowhere is a desperate plea for the same process to occur, itself generating the kind of emotional uplift it pleads for, vociferously soliciting help from …a million different voices speaking in tongues… Led by thunderous drums and rhythm guitars, the mix almost buries Bruce’s desperate requests for the spiritual uplift of …some rhythm… and for ….a world with some soul… On one level, the song is a kind of post-apocalyptic fantasy, like one of those early ‘60s movies where the main character finds themselves alone in a world where everyone else has been wiped out by bomb or plague. The driver ‘tries to find his way home’ by tuning into a station which can uplift him. But there is nothing. The dial is dead. …Is there anybody alive out there?…he cries repeatedly, desperately. The lines are clipped, terse. Licking his dry lips over the rhymes, the singer evokes Presley’s ghost: …I was drivin’ through the misty rain/ Searchin’ for a mystery train… The song also recalls the other Elvis – Costello’s gloriously vituperative Radio Radio, a venomous attack on the blandness of radio programming – but the implications here are wider – the narrator is not so much angry as desperate. It seems unlikely that he’ll receive the nourishment his soul so obviously needs. The lack of ‘soul’ on the radio shows works as a symbol of a wider malaise – it is not just the music which has lost its soul, but the whole culture that surrounds it.
The two rather sour and twisted love songs which follow, You’ll Be Coming Down and Living In The Future, sustain this mood in a rather sly, deceptive way. In both cases the music is rather stirring and uplifting, with ‘The Big Man’ Clarence Clemons’ energetic, optimistic-sounding sax prominent. Living In The Future also showcases Danny Federeci’s luxuriant organ sound and ends in a chorus of …Na, na, nas… Both have strong, ‘stadium singalong’ chroruses. But the lyrics of both songs belie the music. In You’ll Be Coming Down the narrator addresses what may be an ex-girlfriend who has left him for a life in the public eye. …They’ll use you up and spit you out… he sneers …You’ll be fine as long as your pretty face holds out… He warns her bitterly that everything will fall apart for her soon. Living In The Future begins with the narrator relating news of a ‘Dear John’ letter his lover has sent him, after which he develops a number of apocalyptic metaphors in a kind of imagined fantasy vengeance scenario. The chorus casts doubt on the whole scenario in an oddly threatening way. Both songs employ a range of natural imagery. In You’ll Be Coming Down the sky’s colour changes from murky gray to dusky blue to cinammon to ‘candy-apple green’ . In Living In The Future the skies are ….gunpowder and shades of grey… and the sun is ‘dirty’. Behind both songs, something ominous lurks. Next up, Your Own Worst Enemy is wrapped in strings and harmonies and ends with the sound of fading church bells, but tells a rather paranoid, guilt-ridden tale. Told from a more detached third-person perspective this time, the song relates how its protagonist has to ‘remove all the mirrors’ from his house, having carelessly left his fingerprints’ at what may be a murder scene. But it seems that the ‘worst enemy’ may be the main character himself.
While these songs conjure sometimes disturbing images of disharmony under troubled skies, Gypsy Biker is more explicit in its focus. A story-ballad in the Nebraska mode initially led by acoustic guitar and harmonica, it deals with the effects of the death of a soldier on a family in a small American town. The narrator is the soldier’s brother. There is no specific mention of the Iraq War but the overtly cynical justapositioning of the political and the domestic in the opening lines leaves us in little doubt as to the scenario:…The speculators made their money on the blood you shed/Your momma’s pulled the sheets up off your bed… Both the family and the town are divided over whether this sacrifice has been worthwhile. As a tribute to the fallen soldier the brother and his friends take his beloved motorbike and incinerate it out in the desert. The song ends with the brother snorting lines of coke, trying to blot out any sense of morality. …To the dead… he points out …it don’t matter much ’bout who’s wrong or right…
Girls In Their Summer Clothes has the album’s most distinctive tune, its booming, echoey sound conjuring up the Early 60s ‘carnival sound’ that one always imagines was the soundtrack to the teenage Bruce’s adventures, its soundscape emulating Phil Spector and classic Beach Boys. The song’s main melody line seems to echo a hundred American ‘boardwalk’ songs of the time but is actually partly derived from The Who’s The Kids Are Alright. The tone of fantasy-nostalgia is deliberate. The song begins with a series of idealised images of a place Bruce calls ‘Blessing Avenue’. We see lovers holding hands, a bicycle wheel spinning…. a rubber ball bouncing off a wall, the evening lights coming on. It’s what you might call an ‘American idyll’, brightly lit and somehow slow-moving, conjuring up a similarly surreal view of suburbia to the opening sequence David Lynch’s masterful movie Blue Velvet (1986). Yet as in that movie, darkness lurks beneath the bright surfaces. The song’s narrator declares, rather ambiguously: ….Tonight I’m gonna burn this town down… The girls passing by on the street don’t notice him – as if he exists in a different reality. He sits in a diner downtown and indulges in a brief fantasy about a waitress who temporarily takes pity on him. …Love’s a fool’s dance… he mutters wistfully. The narrator is a man out of time, out of step with this imagined America.
The next two songs are rather oblique fantasies. I’ll Work For Your Love may even be set in the same diner – here the narrator constructs an elaborate flight of the imagination around a waitress, indulging in bizarre Catholic imagery, comparing the bones in her back to ‘Stations of the Cross’ : ..Round your hair the sun lifts a halo… he muses… at your lips a crown of thorns… He imagines her beauty will redeem him from the ‘perdition’ he finds himself in. Again the surfaces of the music are rich and warm, with the swirling organ again to the fore, the melody bearing some resemblance to Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom. In the final lines the religious/sexual imagery becomes suggestively menacing: …I watch your hands smooth the front of your blouse and seven drops of blood fall… Magic is another deceptively ‘gentle’ song, its simple acoustic setting and near-whispered vocals recalling the stylings of Tunnel Of Love. The song begins innocently enough, with the ‘magician’ telling the subject of the song that he has a ‘coin in his palm’ and a ‘rabbit in his hat’, but we soon move into a strange, dream-like territory: …Chain me in a box in your river/ And I’ll rise singin’ this song… the narrator intones. He then tells her …I’ll cut you in half/ While you’re smilin’ ear to ear… This may be, perhaps, some elaborate joke. But in the final verse we suddenly shift into an apocalyptic scenario where ‘bodies are hanging from the trees’- a kind of twisted, hell-like vision. Magic is a kind of mysterious invocation, culminating in a sense of deep foreboding which is a kind of prelude to the more overtly dark worlds of the album’s climactic songs.
The first of these, Last To Die, is a supremely ambivalent effort beset by disturbingly violent images. Musically and vocally it recalls many of the brooding pieces on 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, but lyrically it takes us even further into disturbing territory. The song begins with a couple driving in their car with …the kids asleep in the backseat… An apocalyptic scenario rages around them, with cities in flames. The suggestion of the early lines in the song is that the couple are on some kind of random murder spree: … We don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn anymore… the narrator sings …We just stack the bodies outside the door…although this is more likely to be a (somewhat disturbing) metaphor for a relationship under intense strain. The chorus quotes a well known question a young John Kerry once asked regarding the Vietnam War, which has obvious resonances with the current Iraq situation. The driver is listening to ‘voices on the radio’ which fill him with disturbing visions … ‘Faces at the dead at five’… suggesting a daily news roll call of casualties, is counter posed with the haunting…. Our martyr’s silent eyes/ Petition the drivers as we pass by… As with many of the earlier songs, news of the war seems to find an echo in the characters’ inner turmoil.
In Long Walk Home, another energetic rocker with a rousing chorus, is a picture of small town America with its values in flux. The narrator is a young man who has returned home to his familiar town (presumably from the war, though this is not made explicit). The town is the same as when he left, yet it is irrevocably changed. …I could smell the same deep green of summer… he tells us, trying to seek reassurance, … Above me the same night sky was glowin’ … But the town diner is closed and the ‘veteran’s hall’ is empty. Borrowing a phrase from an old Stanley Brothers song he finds the familiar faces in the town are now all …rank strangers to me… As the song climaxes he desperately tries to cling to the notion that everyone in the town is a friend, which is underlined my his father’s remarkably moving words in the final verse that seem to solidify the certainties of middle America: … You know that flag flying over the courthouse/ Means certain things are set in stone/ Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t…. But from what we’ve already heard, allegiance to that proud flag is severely in question. The narrator’s town, like small towns all over the country, is deeply divided. Things are no longer ‘set in stone’, whatever the young man tries to tell himself. The central motif of the ‘long walk home’ powerfully suggests the gulf between the shared values which sent the young man to war and those he confronts when he returns, symbolising also the ‘long walk’ which the whole country will need to make to regain its shaken certainties.
A mournful violin introduces the album’s dramatic climactic song, The Devil’s Arcade, in which the hidden themes of the album surface with poignant poetic clarity. Like many of the other songs on the album its stance is one of ambiguous internal monologue, cataloguing bitter regret. Here the subject appears to be a wounded soldier lying in …a ward with blue walls… The narrator is his lover, who we can imagine is back home, confused thoughts rushing through her head as she remembers the first time they made love, the impressions overwheling her as she remembers …the rush of your lips, the feel of your name/ the beat of your heart… She remembers her ‘brave soldier’, who is probably only eighteen or nineteen, rationalising his going off to war … You said heroes are needed, so heroes get made… She pictures him sleeping in …a sea with no name… dreaming of his lost buddies, then waking …with a thick desert dust on your skin…. In the final verse we hear her imagining her comforting him., reassuring him he can return to … A house on a quiet street, a home for the brave… Another American idyll here… but the tone of the song and its emotional intensity suggest strongly that the soldier is either about to do or will be coming home hopelessly crippled. The line that follows ….The glorious kingdom of the sun on your face…. Is beautifully ironic, setting the idea of ‘glory’ in an ambiguous context – the ‘kingdom’ may well be that of death. As the song climaxes the mournful lover sobs into the repeated …the beat of your heart…the album’s most dramatic moment, remembering their sexual union again but also willing him back to life and health. The image of ‘the devil’s arcade’ suggests a kind of shooting gallery, a game of chance where life itself is at stake. The song provides this series of dark visions with a fitting closure, as we imagine what might have been. Throughout the album, an idealised America is contrasted with the reality of a country which – as Radio Nowhere implies – has sold its soul.
The ‘hidden track’ Terry’s Song is a fairly straightforward lament for a dead friend which, ironically, provides the only real moments of humour on the whole album: … And I know you’ll take comfort… Bruce sings, over a simple acoustic backing, …in knowing you’ve been roundly blessed and cursed…. In terms of how it is constructed it’s very different to the rest of the record. Arguably its inclusion takes away from the last track’s dramatic input, but as a lament for one who has died its placing is perhaps appropriate.
Magic is, overall, however, a remarkably unified piece of work, beginning as a journey into an imagined America – a very different kind of America to that of the teenage wonderland of his early albums. For years Springsteen has alternated between his ‘big rock’ sound with the E-Street Band and his solo acoustic ‘confessionals’. Here his musical stylings seem unified as never before and his lyricism has a new maturity and depth. The songs on Magic are not easy to interpret – they are complex exercises in narrative with considerable levels of ambiguity. Magic is, of course, deeply informed by a cynical view of Bush’s America and its disastrous foreign policy adventures. But it is no simplistic ‘protest’ album (like, say, Neil Young’s polemical Living With War). Its overarching subject is the psychology of ‘ordinary’ Americans (always Springsteen’s favourite constituency) in the shadow of a calamity which has shattered the ideological unity even of its small town heartlands. With cold precision, it holds up a shattered mirror for America’s soul.