Thursday, September 26, 2019

My Back Pages -- And His

So after posting "You'll Be Comin' Down" yesterday, in honor of Bruce Springsteen's birthday, I realized I hadn't listened to Magic lately, and remembered how much I liked it when it was first released in 2007.

Which led me to look up the review of it I'd written for the Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Review, which I recalled being quite proud of at the time.

A long time ago - May of 1968, to be precise - first-generation rock critic Jon Landau reviewed Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding in Crawdaddy (which, by the way, has recently been revived - online), and he summed it up with this particularly felicitous and insightful phrase: "Dylan has felt the War."

It is, to say the least, a tad ironic that lo these many years later, a similar phrase could be tagged to Bruce Springsteen's Magic - and not just because Landau has been Springsteen's manager for longer than some people who will buy this album have been alive. But yes, the specter of Iraq does haunt some of the songs here - and not just the explicitly antiwar "Last to Die," a fairly heartbreaking piece of work, it should be noted, albeit more in resignation than in anger.

For example, the opening track (and the album's first single), "Radio Nowhere," evokes the war obliquely. Its resemblance to Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" notwithstanding, I think it's an (almost) instant classic, partly because it's such a break from the occasionally overheated street romanticism of Springsteen's 1970s stuff (compared with, say, "Badlands," this is a haiku) and partly because it's got a kind of a sci-fi feel, an eerie depiction of a post-Bush apocalyptic landscape via the metaphor of a late-night DJ wondering if anybody's listening.

"Long Walk Home," another of Springsteen's small-town sketches, comes at the war from a different angle, with the singer's father reminding him that "Certain things are set in stone / Who we are, what we'll do, and what we won't." And then there's "Gypsy Biker," which can be read as a warrior's goodbye to a fallen friend (killed for the same mistake mourned in "Last to Die"), as well as "Devil's Arcade," which might be about a shattered soldier in a V.A. hospital. Or not. (The lyric is, shall we say, ambiguous.)

Meanwhile, the sound of Magic is really, in the abstract, quite wonderful. Brendan O'Brien's production isn't exactly a Spectorian Wall of Sound, but it's a big, dense, imposing construct on its own terms. And you'll be pulling interesting instrumental and vocal moments out of the mix throughout, my own favorite being the church bells and wordless Beach Boys harmonies that sneak up at the end of "Your Own Worst Enemy" - and Bruce's singing right before that, which ranks with the prettiest he's ever done.

The rest of the songs are a fairly mixed bag stylistically. "You'll Be Comin' Down" is a stately bit of folk rock with one of his most appealing melodies, but lyrically it's addressed to a girl whose pretty face is going to hell sooner rather than later, and it's as bleak and depressing as anything that Richard Thompson has ever imagined. "Livin' in the Future" is a throwback to Springsteen's '60s R&B roots; it has a bit of a "Hungry Heart" party groove, but the story it tells might be about some desperate, not-so-distant time when the singer's "ship Liberty sailed away on a bloody red horizon."

But the killer - or at least, the song I keep coming back to - is "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," a Brill Building love song of the kind that Bruce used to toss off effortlessly, and an absolute stunner. It could be the 40-years-in-the-making sequel to Manfred Mann's "Pretty Flamingo" (which Bruce used to cover live), with the singer now older, wiser, but still optimistic against the odds. Which means that the lines "Down here on magic street / Love's a fool's dance / And I ain't got much sense, but I still got my feet" may be simultaneously the silliest and most profound lyrics that Bruce Springsteen has ever written.

--- Steve Simels

Turns out I still am, actually. The stuff about the war in particular.

But in any case, I re-listened to the record, and I had completely forgotten this song, which absolutely blows me away.

You're welcome very much.


Blue Ash Fan said...

I played this album to death, and found it impossible to play "Your Own Worst Enemy" or "You'll Be Coming Down" just once before moving on to the next track. To these ears, it's an underrated gem and one of his best.

What's your take on Western Stars? I happen to think it's his best since Magic, but I imagine I'm in the minority here.

paulinca said...

WOW; I can't say how many times I've listened to Western Stars without thinking that the foundation for the record was Magic. I caught four shows from this tour; I listened to the hell out of this record. It may very well be the best since the E Street Reunion. I've often said that if Steven produce it, it'd be Bruce's best since, maybe The River. I HATE the production value of every record up until WS though the music is top rate. "Girls" hits me every time as a song by an old man who used to know how young he was and how young he isn't. I'm beginning to get there. The record and the song are nods to earlier sounds yet with contemporary angles. When one gets away from the topical content (a la BITUSA) there are some deep cut gems on both sides. Deep religious and cultural meaning and it keeps me coming back every time. Even when the hero realizes he's no longer #1 but one who still has lead in his pencil; that's a great song. A great statement. Clint Eastwood; DeNiro; Pachino; Hoffman; Hemingway; Steinbeck. Bruce is 70. May I be this virile when I'm fifty.