Bruce Springsteen's 'Magic,' track by track

Magic_lIf you’ve been absorbing the various critical and fan accounts of Bruce Springsteen’s brilliant new record, Magic (including my own, which you can read here), you may feel torn about just what kind of expectations you’re supposed to bring  when the CD arrives in stores Tuesday. Is it a pure, giddy blast of band-oriented fun — a grand, spirited, hard-rocking return to the E Street glory days that finally gives the fans what they’ve been wanting ever since Born in the U.S.A.? Or is it a dark, somber, even grimly political piece of work that soberly zeroes in on disillusionment and the downfall of American idealism?

Well, geez, can’t it be both? It is, and that, really, is the magic of Magic. But fans will see in it what they want to see in it. Friday morning, playing a live set on Today, Springsteen introduced the new song "Livin’ in the Future" with a long rant that started on the jocular side, before he veered off into a laundry list of wrongs — "rendition, illegal wiretapping, voter suppression, no habeas corpus, the neglect of our great city of New Orleans and her people, an attack on the Constitution, and the loss of our best young men and women in a tragic war" — to which the deceptively celebrative-sounding song is really alluding. "This is a song about things that shouldn’t happen here happening here," he told the crowd. You can see footage of the performance if you go to this page at MSNBC.com. But ironically, on that same page is a link to MSNBC’s review of the album, headlined "The Boss abandons the message albums of the past to have fun with friends,"  bizarrely claiming that you won’t need to worry about any of that pesky social consciousness stuff this time around. Ironic, right?

There’s so much substance to Magic that, in addition to my A-grade review, I thought I’d pop up on PopWatch to offer a track-by-track preview of the album:

1. "Radio Nowhere." Everyone already knows this one, sinceit’s been available free online as a teaser for weeks. The maincomplaint fans have had about it: It fades out too soon — but theentire album has that economical, leave-’em-wanting-more ethos. Here,Springsteen sets up the themes of searching and disillusionment thatwill characterize the album without tieing them too strictly to topicalevents (yet). The E Street Band’s phalanx of guitarists has probablynever indulged in such a three-pronged attack before. And you’ll noticethat a key change kicks in at the beginning of Clarence Clemons’ saxbreak — only to have the tune revert back when he’s done. Actually,that same Big Man key-change gambit is pulled on the next two songs,too. But (speaking of magic) even if you know how the trick is done, itstill doesn’t ruin the effect.

2. "You’ll Be Comin’ Down." Unless Springsteen is gettingeven more allegorical on us than we imagine, this is one of the songsthat isn’t about America, but just an American girl. But it’s no ode,as such; in the great tradition of artists like Dylan and Costellotaking the piss out of an in-vogue beauty who’s gotten a little too bigfor her britches, he warns: "You’ll be fine as long as your pretty faceholds out/Then it’s gonna get pretty cold out."

3. "Livin’ in the Future." If any song here is destined tobecome a concert favorite, it’s this one, which fans who’ve gotten anearly listen have compared to "Tenth Avenue Freezeout" (even thoughthere’s no horn section on this or any other Magic track). ButBruce hasn’t been making any bones about the fact that the lyrics aredesigned as a distinct political critique, and one fan already postedafter the Today appearance that Bruce’s "rant" had "ruined’Livin’ in the Future’ for me forever." You could still take this as asong about a relationship gone wrong, but it seems clear that, if youget a ticket for his coming tour, this is going to be the number wherehe does a little preaching and lets his progressive freak flag fly.

4. "Your Own Worst Enemy." Self-loathing never sounded sogorgeous as in this, the first true timeless classic of the album. Thestring arrangement might have you drawing comparisons as far back asthe Left Banke’s "Walk Away, Renee," though you’ll hear some harmoniesredolent of the Beach Boys when it gets to the bridge, too. But don’tlet the prettiness fool you: This is the perfect song, when you realizethat you’ve completely #@&*-ed up, to flog yourself by. What sinsthe narrator has committed that convince him he’s his "own worst enemy"remain unclear, though there are hints that it may have been some kindof personal infidelity or betrayal  ("Once the family felt secure/Nowno one’s very sure"). It’s chillingly lonely… and just a little bittranscendent, too, as the realization kicks in that — OMG!!!! — Bruceis back to writing unabashed Pop Music here.

5. "Gypsy Biker." Maybe the saddest song he’s ever written —and one of the fiercest and hardest rocking. On first listen, you mightnot catch that the biker of the title is, in fact, a dead soldier whosebuddies have gathered to celebrate him. A gleaming bike does show up,which the friends take out into the desert and set on fire, as a sortof funeral pyre. If that isn’t "Born to Run" all grown up and gone tohell, I don’t know what is. When the guitar solo kicks in, it’swrenchingly elegiac in a deep, primal way, almost like a dog howling tomourn its late master.

6. "Girls in Their Summer Clothes." Suddenly, Springsteen’sno longer mourning a deceased soldier but his own lost youth, in theclosest thing to an escapist song on the album. Fresh from a breakup,the narrator heads out to do some girl-watching, and if he might beoverly optimistic about the chances of one of those sweet young thingsstopping to heal him, the sense of longing and tactile descriptions ofa lively street scene are still intensely romantic. The Phil Spector/Pet Soundsinfluences return in a big way for the second time on the album, andyou may hear a hint of the Who’s "The Kids are Alright" in the verse’smelody line, too. If they’d reissued Born to Run with this as abonus track, claiming it was a long-lost outtake that had always beenmeant to follow the title song in the running order, you’d haveprobably swallowed it.

7. "I’ll Work for Your Love." The one truly upbeat lyrichere, and the most peculiar. Springsteen serenades a barmaid namedTheresa, with devotion that crosses the line into pure worship — somuch so that the verses are filled with hilariously over-the-topreligious imagery. ("I’ll watch the bones in your back like thestations of the cross… The pages of Revelation lie open in your emptyeyes of blue… tears they fill the rosary, at your feet my temple ofbones.") Some fans have read into this that the song might actually be aboutSt. Theresa, but don’t take the Catholic imagery too far, kids — thisis the album’s one moment of pure, unbridled, joyful lust. And it’s Magic‘s fourth instant classic in a row.

8. "Magic." You could almost divide the album into two parts,with tracks 1-7 being in a classic E Street vein and 8-12 (counting theunlisted bonus track) more closely resembling one of his solo albums.Certainly things shift more overtly toward the political at this point,though you’d be right to point out that the earlier "Livin’ in theFuture" and "Gypsy Biker" lyrically belong in this camp, as well. Thetitle track is really its only slow one, as Springsteen takes on thecharacter of an apparently sinister sleight-of-hand man who may or maynot have deep connections with the current administration. It’s not oneof the album’s great songs, but it is invaluable in bridging the twotypes of magic on the album — the enchantment of being out on thestreet ("Girls in Their Summer Clothes" has a reference to "MagicAvenue"), versus the so-called "black arts" of politics and war.

9. "Last to Die." The chorus borrows a famous line fromVietnam-era John Kerry: "Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?" Asthe most polemical song on the album, it’s in danger of stating itsintent a bit too literally, compared with the artful double entendresfound elsewhere in Magic‘s social commentary. Yet the personalimagery strewn through the song brings it back to earth and saves it: Acouple seem to be on a road trip with their kids, experiencing newsreports of the war along the way to "Truth or Consequences" (presumablyboth the New Mexico town and a more metaphorical place). And it’spossible to imagine that the references to untended dead bodies referto skeletons in their own closet as well as, literally, the Iraqsituation.

10. "Long Walk Home." There’s a kind of magic realism at workhere, as Springsteen walks through familiar hometown streets, full ofsignposts that should be comforting, and yet finds that the people are"all rank strangers to me." That’s a brilliant reference to the StanleyBrothers’ gospel song "Rank Strangers" (covered by Dylan on a 1988album), where the narrator, newly beholden to God, returns to a homebase that no longer means anything to him. Only in this case, it’spresumably divisions over the War on Terror that have the narratorfeeling estranged from the people he once loved. This is the one songon the album that Springsteen had previously premiered live, on his Seeger Sessionstour, and there (as you’ll see if you dig up the bootleg video onYouTube), it went on for a couple more angrier verses. But it endsperfectly now, with the character remembering some once-comfortingwords from his father — "You know that flag flying over thecourthouse/Means certain things are set in stone/Who we are, what we’lldo and what we won’t" — and just leaving the indictment that mightfollow that unspoken and implicit.

11. "Devil’s Arcade." Interpretations of this lyric — the onetrue story-song on the album — vary. But it seems to be sung by a womanto a soldier recovering (or not) from grave wounds suffered in abombing in Iraq: She remembers their first fumbling sexual experiencesand looks forward to a sensual, sunny breakfast when, once again, he’llbe able to experience Morning in America. We don’t know whether herhope in his recovery is misplaced or not.

12. "Terry’s Song." The previous song makes such a stunningclimax that you’d logically want it to end there, but as a celebrativefuneral song, this unlisted bonus acoustic track certainly does makefor an appropriate segue out of the hospital-set "Devil’s Arcade.""When they made you, brother, they broke the mold," Bruce sings, in anumber bound to be played at countless funerals in the coming decades.And just when you thought the mold had been broken on albums as greatas Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen is back, combiningthat early spirit with a level of writing that can only come from realmaturation, ready to show us that he can not only prove it all nightbut prove it all life.

Have you heard this material yet, through leaks or legit means? Doyou have your own take on these songs? Take one step up, PopWatchers,and tell us know whether the new songs are working the same magic onyou.

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Comments (33 total) Add your comment
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  • brucefan

    A brilliant analysis–thanks! One thing that struck me about “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” is that it is one of the few (or only?) Springsteen songs that expresses direct hostility toward a woman. Lust, unrequited longing, frustration, disappointment–his songbook offers that in abundance. But not outright hostility. I was thinking about this recently while listening to Blood on the Tracks and comparing it to Tunnel of Love. Dylan’s “relationship gone bad” album dripped viciousness (“some day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes, blood on your saddle”). TOL was more mea culpa (“when I look at myself I don’t see the man I wanted to be”). For that reason, I can’t help wondering whether in “You’ll Be Coming Down” Bruce is having a go at himself, but switching the genders to make it less personal and more universal to the listener? Wouldn’t be the first time a songwriter did that.

  • AtlantaDan

    Nice analysis. But I have to wonder how many of the soldiers, firemen and other average working people that Springsteen claims to care about (and makes a pretty penny singing about) can actually afford his concert tickets. I have a difficult time taking seriously a singer who preaches a worthwhile message but who charges $100 to hear it. Like clockwork, someone will post that he charges less than The Rolling Stones and U2. That’s an irrelevant argument because he also charges considerably more than other socially relevant acts who still manage to amass small fortunes while reamining accessible to their average fans.

  • come on

    You EW writers don’t have to keep pretending to question whether Bruce’s politicking is cool or not. He’s been doing this for years, it’s part of who he is, and it’s fine. The press has done the same BS hand-wringing during every tour, from “41 shots onwards,” and people still buy tickets, and Bruce still rocks. The man is middle-aged and if leftist fury gives him the kind of soul that sex and drugs used to give him, I’m all for it.
    So guys, stop it with on the one hand on the other hand crap, and admit you love the Boss’s righteous anti-establishment rage.

  • Kira

    Can someone explain “The Boss” to me? People rave over this man’s music and has for decades. Yet when I see him perform, I’m left confused because all I see is a guy in too-tight pants gritting out awful sounds. I feel like we’re seeing/hearing two different people. I don’t get it.
    *waits to be torn apart*

  • snarkyspice

    Brilliant album. I am really in love with it and the songs keep revealing themselves to me the more I listen.
    And the poster above is mistaken about ticket prices since you can see Bruce for $50, not $100. Find another artist with his expenses (arenas, band etc.) charging anything even close to as little as that and I’ll buy you several beers, dude. Firemen in NY might not be able to afford to see the Yankees play, but they can afford Bruce.

  • AtlantaDan

    Show me a link where you can see Springsteen perform on this tour for $50 and I will gladly retract my complaints about his prices. The majority of tickets are going for $95, which adds up to more than $100 with ticketmaster charges. A handful of arena sections are going for $60-$65+ charges. These are for only a few of the worst sections in the arena, and not even worth half of that price.
    As far as his expenses, why are they any more than those of Bob Dylan? I can see Bob AND Elvis Costello together in the front row of a luxurious theater for less than what I’d pay to see Springsteen in the nosebleeds at a glorified hockey rink.

  • bonnylass

    To AtlantaDan: Springsteen doesn’t charge $100 to hear his music. If you shell out a whole $9.99 on Amazon for his new cd, you can listen to your heart’s content. Seems pretty affordable to me!

  • Robert

    It’s a very good album – and though I don’t know that it’s his best since The River (I am very fond of BITUSA & Nebraska), it’s his best in a long time. His tickets did run around $100 each in the NYC/NJ area, and I gladly ponied up for it. Not because it’s cheaper or the equivalent of other artists, but because when he & the band are on, and I mean really on, they can make you see God.

  • AtlantaDan

    I’m well aware of how good Bruce and the band are when they hit the stage. And that’s well and good that you can afford his ticket prices. I can too, for that matter. However, I see something terribly dishonest about a singer who makes his lucrative living celebrating average people- not just the poor and disenfranchised but common working people like you and me- but charges prices for his performances that would eliminate a lot of those very people from seeing him. Good for you if you can rationalize that for your own enjoyment, but I for one don’t want to hear songs about wounded enlisted soldiers and the survivors of heroic 9/11 rescue workers from a rock star who doesn’t give any consideration as to whether or not those people can attend his concerts.

  • Robert

    Dan – you seem awfully bitter about this. You mean to say that you see dishonesty in the music business? I am shocked! This is the industry that helped to create Ticketmaster, which only exists to charge non-refundable fees and make $20 shows cost $31.
    You complain that he doesn’t give any consideration to those soldiers & firemen who may not be able to attend his shows, because of the cost, and I say, so? Since when is anyone entitled to see anyone live in concert? Whenever Willie Nelson or John Mellencamp, both huge supporters of farmers, charge more than $50 per seat, do you also complain, because the farmers won’t be able to see them?
    Also, your earlier Dylan/Costello post is misleading. Dylan no longer plays guitar, and is a shell of his former self live. Elvis is still good, but would you really equate Elvis Costello with Bruce Springsteen?
    Just chill out – you’re getting overexcited about this, and for no good reason. You obviously won’t go. So stop whining.

  • AtlantaDan

    Careful, Robert. You risk being called a fanboy for your enthusiasm and apologizing if you’re going to label my cynicsm as “bitter” or “overexcited”. It’s just a conversation in response to some critical praise for Springsteen. I don’t expect him to charge any certain price. Nor do I believe that anyone is entitled to see a live performance. However, for my own personal tastes I do need to see some integrity and genuineness from the artists that I admire. I used to see that from Springsteen but his ticket prices have made me recently question just how committed he is to the things he sings about. As for Mellencamp and Willie Nelson, I would hold them to the same standards in a discussion about them. I’ve seen both acts in the past several years, however, and both offered admission for significantly less than $50. And yes, I would equate Elvis Costello with Bruce Springsteen. Not necessarily in commercial terms but certainly in quality of musicianship and songwriting.

  • Robert

    Perhaps it’s just because we see things from different parts of the country Dan, but when people come to where I live (NYC area) to play, I expect to be gouged a little more than the rest of the country for ticket prices. The Elvis/Dylan show last night in CT was significantly higher priced than any other show on their tour, except for Chicago. And that is 2 hours outside of NYC.
    I can understand where you’re coming from, but I just don’t see it the same. I don’t see it as an integrity thing. Perhaps it’s because I don’t really take anything that anyone says at face value. Maybe Bruce & other artists really do believe what they sing about, but most of me thinks they don’t. Perhaps it’s the cynic in me, but I have no problem at all with that. For me to believe that everyone means what they say goes against a lifetime of seeing the opposite.

  • BostonDan

    AtlantaDan–bitter much? I think you should stop whining about ticket prices in general. Springsteen is not the only “older” act charging high prices to see him in concert, and, compared to U2, the Police, Madonna (OK–maybe a bad comparison, but, heck, her top tickets are $350), Fleetwood Mac, etc. $100 is a bargain!!!

  • Anonymous

    Good points, Robert, & thanks for the perspective.I guess I’d just like to believe that Springsteen is motivated by more than just the almighty dollar.I’m drawn to him both because I love his music and because my political/social beliefs are consistent with what he sings about. If he’s not being honest about those things then it puts his music in an entirely different light for me.I don’t need Bruce Springsteen to tell me how to think,but it’s nice to think that there are like-minded people out there who are able to express those opinions in ways that my tone-deaf self is not.
    BostonDan-as long as Springsteen has apologists like you who write people like me off as “whining” then I guess he has no reason to change.Sure, some bands charge more than Springsteen, but many major acts also charge less. Cheaper tickets would be more consistent with the spirit of his music.I’ll say the same thing about Madonna when she starts earning millions from singing about homeless vets and migrants.

  • Elrond L.

    Really enjoyed your breakdown of these great songs . . . I was lucky enough to get a CD from a friend 2 weeks ago, and I will definitely buy my legit copy tomorrow. I never really got into Springsteen until my mid-30s (I’m 40 now), being more of a U2 fan . . . but I bought ‘The Rising’ in 2002, and was hooked. ‘Magic’ is even better. I have loved getting to know these songs, and it’s true that they reveal a new layer with each listen. Our 12-year old daughter is a fan, and she has been playing it on her MP3 non-stop. We’re going to see Bruce in Oakland later this month — our first time — and we can hardly wait.

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