These characters look ready for Halloween.
Also: San Diego - Leo's USA tour report
Touring is tough.
Americans expect to have freedom around us just as we expect to have air to breathe, so we have only limited understanding of the furnaces of repression that the Founders knew intimately. Few of us spend much time thinking about how "the system" they put in place protects our liberties. We spend even less time, considering how dictators in the past have broken down democracies or quelled pro-democracy uprisings. We take our American liberty for granted the way we take our natural resources for granted, seeing both, rather casually, as being magically self-replenishing. We have not noticed how vulnerable either resource is until very late in the game, when systems start to falter. We have been slow to learn that liberty, like nature, demands a relationship with us in order for it to continue to sustain us.
Most of us have only a faint understanding of how societies open up or close down, become supportive of freedom or ruled by fear, because this is not the kind of history that we feel, or that our educational system believes, is important for us to know. Another reason for our vagueness about how liberty lives or dies is that we have tended lately to subcontract out the tasks of the patriot: to let the professionals -- lawyers, scholars, activists, politicians -- worry about understanding the Constitution and protecting our rights. We think that "they" should manage our rights, the way we hire a professional to do our taxes; "they" should run the government, create policy, worry about whether democracy is up and running. We're busy.
But the Founders did not mean for powerful men and women far away from the citizens -- for people with their own agendas, or for a class of professionals -- to perform the patriots' tasks, or to protect freedom. They meant for us to do it: you, me, the American who delivers your mail, the one who teaches your kids.
I am one of the citizens who needed to relearn these lessons. Though I studied civics, our system of government was taught to me, as it was to you, as a fairly boring explication of a three-part civil bureaucracy, not as the mechanism of a thrilling, radical, and totally unprecedented experiment in human self-determination. My teachers explained that our three-part system was set up with "checks and balances," so that no one branch of government could seize too much power. Not so exciting: this sounded like "checks and balances" in a bureaucratic turf war. Our teachers failed to explain to us that the power that the Founders restrained in each branch of government is not abstract: it is the power to strip you and me of personal liberty.
So I needed to go back and read, more deeply than I had the first time around, histories of how patriots gave us our America out of the crucible of tyrants, as well as histories of how dictators came to power in the last century. I had to reread the stories of the making and the unmaking of freedom. The more I read these histories, the more disturbed I became.
I give you the lessons we can learn from them in this pamphlet form because of the crisis we face.
After the great, cinematic road trips ("The Wild, the Innocent," "Born to Run," "Darkness," "The River"); the rock-star coming-of-age musings ("Born in the U.S.A.," "Tunnel of Love"); the folk-tinged roots explorations ("Nebraska," "Tom Joad," "Seeger Sessions"); the "um, that was ... interesting" side trips (I'm lookin' at you, "Better Days" and "Human Touch"); and the sober takes on the New Millennium ("The Rising," "Devils + Dust"), "Magic" is a logical progression for Springsteen. An amalgam of all the great riffs, sing-along choruses, and signature Boss features (glockenspiel, anyone?), the latest from Bruce also benefits from the emotional intensity and darkness his lyrics have explored in recent years. And of course, his E Street Band compatriots are here in full sonic force -- the engine that drives Springsteen's train of thought.
In case anyone missed it, this is a deeply political album. I'm dumbfounded by reviews that say it includes "one or two songs about the war in Iraq." EVERY song is in some way about the war in Iraq, or about the state of America today. I'm also amused by the predictable hue and cry that denouncing these things is somehow unpatriotic. (Seriously, does anyone even pay attention to that rot anymore?) Springsteen's love of country comes through loud and clear, along with his disgust about the way that country has been shamed by the people currently running it. "Magic" may, in fact, be the most patriotic album of his career.
My only complaint about it is Brendan O'Brien's production, which is every bit as muddy-sounding here as it was on "The Rising." Brendan, please back away from the compressor. I'm begging you.
But in every other way, this is as satisfying a Bruce Springsteen album as any he's put out -- and a perfect, pointed commentary about a nation in dire need of a little magic of its own.
-- Ceejay, on Amazon.com
Five years ago, I declared that Bruce Springsteen was Officially Finished after his album The Rising, a celebration of 9/11 that was pretty bland, pretentious and terrible.
But three terrific albums later (Devils & Dust, The Seeger Sessions, and now Magic), the lesson, as always, is clear: I'm an idiot. If you haven't bought Magic yet, you should. On its own merits, it is an album more than worthy of Bruce Springsteen.
I knew Magic was officially a great album this weekend, when I involuntarily reached for the volume in the car during "Girls In Their Summer Clothes". And cranked it.
I'm not going to get into any comparisons, or say wild stuff like "This is his best album since The River!" But let's just say that I got so fired up about Magic this weekend that I did bust out The River and cranked THAT, just to make the comparison.
(Of course The River kicks Magic to the curb. Let's not get too crazy here.)
I think Springsteen knew deep down that The Rising was a stinker, and I give him all the credit in the world for bouncing back like he has. Springsteen brought out the hooks for this new album, and you can hear them on "You'll Be Comin' Down", "Livin' In The Future", and most notably "Girls In Their Summer Clothes".
Yes, the sound of Magic is extremely derivative of his past 70s glories, but why not? Deep down, Springsteen is a huge competitor. I remember watching some music awards show many years back, when Bruce blew away an earnest but overmatched Jacob Dylan off the stage, and I thought Bruce was having a little too much fun doing so. His whole attitude that night said: "Yeah, your dad is my idol, and your little band is doing well right now, but for the moment why don't you stand right over there and LEARN."
Fast forward to 2007, where every music critic has been falling over him/herself to proclaim how bands like The Arcade Fire and The Hold Steady have been channeling their inner Springsteen to create Rock That Matters. Think Springsteen was paying attention? I would bet money on it.
I think he went in the studio this year with that same attitude, one that said, "Oh, the Springsteen sound is hot, huh? Well then, welcome to my master class. I'll be your teacher for the next 12 tracks. Now sit down, take out your notebooks and #2 pencils, and begin taking notes. By the way, my name is The Boss."
I personally think the Arcade Fire sound more like John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band than Bruce Springsteen. With Magic, I think Springsteen set out to ensure it. So while many tracks on Magic sound like they could be cut from Darkness On The Edge of Town or Born To Run, they definitely do not sound like outtakes from said records.
I think this new album is more of a response to the indie kids than to anything going on in Iraq right now. He basically should have called this new album Springsteen 101. Recommended.
-- Michael A. Beyer, on Amazon.com
Yes, my friends, it's true. Bruce and the E Street crew are back in glorious form!
I could barely contain myself, driving around listening to the album for the first time. This is the most effortless, organic Springsteen album since "The River". It is, in a word, spectacular.
The album opens with the thrilling "Radio Nowhere". Guitars, check. Drums, check. The band, which we must now admit is on the very short list of "best bands ever", builds the whole track, piece by piece, like a well-told suspense thrillier. There's surprise, drama, mystery...all in the first song. We're just getting started and Bruce has already laid out his plan of attack. I'm back. We're back. We aim to blow you away. Period.
It's that obvious.
Come on...he's even decided to use his classic concert line, "Is there anybody alive out there?" in the body of the song! This one of those songs where you immediately think, "Man, THIS is gonna sound GOOD in concert!"
Next up is "You'll Be Comin' Down", a mid-tempo, head-bopping number with a nice, little sax break swooping in near the end. You'll start to notice that Bruce's singing is markedly different than his last several albums. Gone is the "Joad" mumble, or the "Devils" rasp. His singing is clear, confident and for the first time in decades, smooth and pure. Think "Hungry Heart" or "My Hometown."
"Livin' In The Future" will create a smile on your face from ear to ear within seconds. It's bright and sassy, with great back-up vocals and a too-cool-for-school vibe. Masters Federici and Bittan create a sweet, melodic foundation, and Clarence drops in from the heavens to bless the proceedings with some pure sax love. It is around this time when you will say, for the first time, "I can't believe how good this is..."
It will not be the last.
I have always said a song with a rousing verse of "na-na-na's" cannot be all bad. This is amazing.
"Your Own Worst Enemy" opens up a widescreen image with all those cool, dramatic keyboard things that we remember from "Born To Run"...pianos, glockenspiels, whatever...and then there's Bruce's voice.
It is here where you may utter your first four-letter word, preceded by the word, "Holy". The verses are simple enough, but the end of the song will have you thinking of Roy Orbison.
Yeah...that's what I said. It's epic.
Then comes "Gypsy Biker", opening with a familiar harmonica riff, then gallops into a full band, "heading on down the highway" anthem. Loved the haunting harmonica wail leading into a lacerating guitar solo. This rocks as only the full-band E Street can. Again...his voice is exemplary. In previous albums, he'd probably slur or mumble for dramatic effect, or be judicious with melody to emphasize the lyrics. Not here. Oh no, not at all. I can't get over how good his singing is on this record...
Which brings us to "Girls In Their Summer Clothes." When did Bruce ask Brian Wilson to join the E Street Band? Seriously, the opening reminded of something off "Pet Sounds", and again, the singing is simply astonishing.
This may be the song you will play to non-Bruce music fans; they'll re-assess their opinions instantly.
By this time, I'm thinking, Springsteen hasn't made an album this consistent, this enjoyable, this all-around wonderful since "The River."
Sure, "Born In The USA" was awesome, but it is a document of it's time. "Tunnel of Love" is somewhat painful (too personal?), and the E Street Band only visits from time to time anyways. "Nebraska", "Joad" and "Devils" all serve their purpose in the Springsteen canon ("Nebraska" still blows my mind) but they don't elevate your spirit like, say, "Out In The Street" or "Cadillac Ranch" did. Do. Still.
The non E-Street "Lucky Town/Human Touch" had their moments, and "The Rising", as good as it is, is not exactly a "feel-good" record, if you know what I mean. Its' pleasures are more emotional and cathartic, less purely musical. The Seeger Sessions Band...or "the 1920 E Street Band"...did some unbelievable things, but it's a lark. A wonderful lark, but one nonetheless.
Back to the record.
"I'll Work For Your Love" is a terrific, old-school Springsteen story song; briskly uptempo, cascading pianos, insistent drums (Mighty Max!) and easy on the ears.
"Magic" opens in a way that'll bring back some of the hushed tones of the quieter songs on "The Rising" or "Devils & Dust", but "new" elements weave their way in...a mandolin, soft strings...and Bruce again sings well. On those earlier records, he would sound like he's "reporting" as opposed to singing. I don't know if that makes sense, but for those type of songs, it added a sense of immediacy. That's not necessary here.
A linear guitar/string line tease us into "Last To Die", a serious "No Surrender"-ish rocker. The strings add all sorts of drama to what is "one of those songs Bruce used to do". We can't say anything like that anymore.
"Long Walk Home", another galloping rock song, continues the hit parade. I find it fascinating how all the parts fit together so well. The harmonies. The background lines on the guitars. The keyboard flourishes. The solos. The rhythm section so enmeshed, it borders on something preternatural. Pay attention to the fade out. Springsteen fans will be so tickled they'll vibrate.
"Devil's Arcade" ends Bruce's best album in a quarter century with a serious, drop-dead classic. It's quiet, but "big". Intricate, bold. A slow build to an exhausting, anthemic, epic end.
Being totally serious, I haven't been this impressed with an album upon first listen in a long, long time. I'm thinking the first time I heard "Nevermind". "London Calling." "Born To Run."
There will not be a better album all year.
The magic is back.
-- Amazon.com review by M J Heilbron Jr. "Dr. Mo"
For his part, Mr. Sprinsteen said that in writing the songs for “Magic,” he had experienced “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.
-- In Love With Pop, Uneasy With the World by A.O. Scott, The New York Times
There's also "Devil's Arcade," a vague lament from a soldier's lover who loses her man to the military. "You said heroes are needed, so heroes get made," Springsteen sings. "Somebody made a bet, somebody paid/The cool desert morning and nothin' to save/Just metal and plastic where your body caved."
While the music on "Magic" tends to sound buoyant, even triumphal, the central figures in the lyrics are isolated, alienated, disconnected and disillusioned. They've been betrayed, deceived, dismissed. There's a riptide of angst tugging at those who occupy Springsteen's Americana. This is not an album for happy people living in happy times. (Curiously, the most uplifting entry is "Terry's Song," a deeply heartfelt tribute to Springsteen's longtime assistant, who died in July.)
"Trust none of what you hear/And less of what you see," Springsteen warns on "Magic's" swaying title track. In "Your Own Worst Enemy," a pop masterstroke rendered in the shimmering, expansive style of Brian Wilson, Springsteen sings: "The times they got too clear/So you removed all the mirrors/Once the family felt secure/Now no one's very sure."
-- Springsteen's Magic Casts A Darker Spell by J. Freedom du Lac, Washington Post