Woke up election day
Sky’s gunpowder and shades of grey
Beneath the dirty sun
I whistle my time away
Then just about sun down
You come walkin’ through town
Your boot heels clickin’ like
The barrel of a pistol spinnin’ round
Don’t worry, darlin’
No baby, don’t you fret
We’re livin’ in the future
And none of this has happened yet
Of the eleven tracks on Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, Magic, “Livin’ in the Future” is the lyrical and musical centerpiece. The first thing to notice is the music – or more accurately, the musicians. Springsteen’s last E Street Band venture, The Rising, featured the same players, but producer Brendan O’Brien deadened the band for effect – as if their particular brand of eargasm would be a disservice to Bruce’s weighty 9/11 hymns. Clearly, Bruce is comfortable sounding like Bruce again. Clarence Clemons’ gutsy saxophone, the chiming, shimmering keys of pianist Roy Bittan and organist Dan Federici, the Stax-soul guitar riffing by Steve Van Zandt – it’s like musical comfort food at this point and the main selling point of this album. And, in classic form, under the guise of a fun, mid-tempo rocker, Springsteen is actually trying to come to terms with American life, post-Dubya, as stated explicitly in last Friday’s performance on The Today Show:
“Over the past six years we’ve had to add to the American picture: rendition, illegal wiretapping, voter suppression, no habeus corpus, the neglect of our great city New Orleans and its people, an attack on the Constitution. And the loss of our young best men and women in a tragic war. This is a song about things that shouldn’t happen here—happening here.”
So it is with much of Magic, Springsteen’s fifteenth studio album and certainly his most substantial and catchy since 1984’s Born In The U.S.A. (You may have heard of that one, no?) Where The Rising was Bruce-as-popular-hero, straining like Superman to heal a collective wound, Magic is a return to Bruce-as-stenographer, writing through the eyes of regular folk and not liking what he sees one bit.
Springsteen’s handler’s have stressed that this is not a “political album.” That’s really a way of assuring the bandwagon fans that this isn’t another batch of folkie protest music – no dead Mexicans here! Perhaps wary of his brief career in electoral politics in 2004, Springsteen doesn’t explicate every little thing here. Still, you’d have to be pretty dense or literal-minded to miss this one:
The kids asleep in the backseat
We’re just countin’ the miles you and me
We don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn anymore
We just stack the bodies outside the door
Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake
The last to die for a mistake
Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break
Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake
Apparently, Bruce isn’t so cool with this whole “interminable clusterfuck in Iraq” thing. “Last to Die,” borrowed from Lieutenant John Kerry’s damning Congressional testimony in 1971, churns with righteous anger. That anger morphs with sadness on “Gypsy Biker,” in which said biker comes home in a coffin. It sounds like a decent Human Touch outtake, with a scorching guitar solo that expresses the narrator’s pent-up bitterness better than words can. The title track creepily casts a carnival illusionist as a master of political spin – or is it the other way?
Not every song is touched by war and its discontents. “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” is a put-down so snarky that Elvis Costello should be taking notes. On “I’ll Work For Your Love,” Bruce finally declares affection for his Catholicism while engaging in some beatific lust. And then there’s “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” which economically infuses Wild, Innocent wistfulness with Nebraska seething. It might be Springsteen’s best song in thirty years.
Magic unfortunately wears out its welcome prematurely by including the overlong, overwrought “Devil’s Arcade” at the end; hopefully this is Springsteen’s last experiment with that U2 synth sound. There’s also a bonus track that Bruce wrote for a close friend’s funeral, which is quite moving not because it’s good but because it’s true. The album really should have concluded with “Long Walk Home,” an elegant ode to American idealism that echoes “My Hometown,” one of the seven Top Ten singles from the U.S.A. album. Back then, white flight from an industrial town prompted a father to teach his son about their roots. Now the son is grown and disillusioned by war:
“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 and nobody goes it alone
You know the flag flyin’ over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.’
It’s gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me
Gonna be a long walk home”
After The Rising, people talked about how much we needed Springsteen and his music. I’m not sure Bruce is the first thing the country needs right now. But it sure is nice to have him around and sounding as good as ever.