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2023/4 Albums Thing 344 - Bruce Springsteen “Magic”

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Here we are now in 2007. Since 1995 Bruce Springsteen had released 3 albums of new music (“…Tom Joad”, “The Rising” and “Devils & Dust”). We are about to enter a busy period with 4 new albums in the next 8 years. Sadly, the first 2 of those 4 are, to my ears, 2 of Springsteen’s weakest records, were you to ask me to rank all of his 20 studio albums the bottom 3 would certainly be “Human Touch” plus these next 2. Both of them feature 3, maybe 4, songs of a standard we’ve become used to  and thereafter seem to be padded out with the sort of things that in the past would have been shelved for the next iteration of “Tracks”. 

“Magic” was Springsteen’s first album with the E Street Band since “The Rising” in 2002 (betwixt had been the afore mentioned “Devils & Dust” and “We Shall Overcome…”). When you read about it’s making a couple of things stick out to me. All the songs were written at the end of 2006 but Springsteen allowed producer Brendan O’Brien (who also produced “The Rising” and “Devils & Dust”) to pick which songs should go on the album. Secondly, the E Street Band never played together as a unit on this record. Some of them now had other commitments, primarily Max Weinberg who was the drummer in the house band on the talk show “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” from Monday to Friday. So while everything else was worked on during the week, Springsteen, Weinberg, bassist Garry W Tallent and pianist Roy Bittan would convene at weekends to record basic backing tracks which the rest of the band would add to during the week. It may be that this is why I always think the album has a disjointed feel to it. When you have a band as good as that you really want them all in the room together, that’s when the magic happens.

It starts with “Radio Nowhere” a nice enough rocker but the opening riff is is so closely related to “Shame” by Eat (who I’m in absolutely no doubt Springsteen had absolutely no knowledge of but…) it’s always felt a bit off to me just because of that. “You’ll Be Coming Down” is one of the better songs on here but it still feels like an OK “Sprinsgteen by numbers” number, a good singalong live I’d imagine, not that I’ve ever heard it live. “Livin’ In The Future” starts well with a good ol’ blast of Sax from Clarence but it degenerates into something that sounds like it would have been a discarded outtake around the time of “The River”.

Side One closes out with 2 of the better songs on “Magic”, “Gypsy Biker” and “Girls In Their Summer Clothes”. “Gypsy Biker” is suberb, an angry song, a song about loss with a moody setting and a wailing harmonica throughout giving the whole song an uncomfortable, ghostly feel. Conversely “Girls In Their Summer Clothes”, one that my wife absolutely adores, is a bang-perfect summer pop tune, on a sunny day it makes for another good old singalong. Even so you still get the feeling the singer isn’t a part of the scene, he’s looking in from the outside (“The girls in their summer clothes pass me by”) he’s not part of that crowd, just an observer.

Over on Side Two “I'll Work For Your Love” starts with a classic Professor Roy Bittan piano intro but doesn’t really go anywhere after that. The title song would have sat easily on “…Tom Joad” or “Devils & Dust”, it’s a quiet, eerie song with a lyric that draws an outline of the likes of Trump and Boris Johnson years before they were suffered upon us (“Trust none of what you hear, And less of what you see, This is what will be”), conmen, liars. “Last To Die” is kinda formless and rushed. There’s the germ of a great song somewhere inside “Long Walk Home” but it never really breaks the surface.

The final two songs are where it’s at. “Devils Arcade” is a pointer to the future. Here is the embryonic sound of “Western Stars” fully 12 years before we heard that album, that big orchestrated sound that made up “Western Stars” was trialled right here. It’s a song of loss, heroism, and defiance, and unusually for Springsteen is seemingly sung from a female perspective, it’s a beauty. 

Lastly, after a long silence, is “Terry’s Song”. It was added to the track listing so late that on some initial CD copies it’s not on there. It’s a tribute from Springsteen to his long-time personal assistant Frank “Terry” Magovern. The two had met in 1972 when Bruce played the bar that Terry was managing and they clicked immediately. “Terry’s Song” was written and performed at his memorial service within 3 days of his passing. A heartfelt eulogy from one friend to another “The Taj Mahal, the pyramids of Egypt are unique, I suppose, But when they built you, brother, they broke the mould”.

“Magic” is OK. The trouble for me is I expect better than OK from Bruce Springsteen. It’s a problem of mine more than anyone else’s. I’m sure the themes of the album and the songs themselves are things the writer is proud of, it just doesn’t move me so much. Some guys you just have to stick with even through the less than stellar times.

Devils Arcade - https://youtu.be/zOuj5NjAJRI?si=NOKnFbEIsjqKn_Lr

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