Idol Chatter

Click Here to Listen to “Radio Nowhere” from “Magic”
Doug Howe has already spread the good news of the new Bruce Springsteen album in this space, joining a chorus of hand-clapping reviewers since “Magic” debuted this fall. (A.O. Scott at the New York Times outdid them all, with a fabulous piece that combined reviewery, reportage, and fan-boy worship.) But here at Burn or Burn, we wanted to make sure your iPods, computers, cars, ring tones, and any other preferred listening mechanisms were fully equipped with the Boss, because he’s having a rock n’ roll revival all his own, and if you love music, you don’t want to miss any of it.

“Magic” is Springsteen’s fourth album in five years, an output that, beginning with “The Rising” in 2002, has been as remarkable in its quality as in its diversity. “The Rising” was an E Street Band record built from a solid core of American rock; “Devils and Dust” was an acoustic, atmospheric solo album; last year saw “The Seeger Sessions,” which, along with the live follow-up “Live in Dublin,” revealed Springsteen’s twangy, hootenanny heart: he might hail from Jersey, but his influences stretch into the protest ballads of the West.
“Magic” puts Springsteen back in his role as bandleader, and many fans will find it a welcome return. Not me—much as I admire this album. I prefer Springsteen apart from the E Street Band, and it’s not just because I’m a mopey fellow who likes his singer-songwriters sullen and, when in concert, alone on stage with their guitar. (I adore Wilco, but the most memorable moments of seeing them live involve Jeff Tweedy working his way through tortured lyrics, whether his own or those of Dylan and Guthrie.) Springsteen explores vastly different territory when apart from his E Street mates, dipping into the legacy of Pete Seeger and the stylistic and thematic tradition carved and re-carved by—those names again!—Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. For my money, Springsteen is at his best when he does folk, not least because he walks so well the pathways of folk spirituality.
American folk is a tradition all its own, and it’s definitely a spiritual tradition. It’d be a mistake to take it for Christianity proper, but American folk always involves sin, always a cross, and always a groping for redemption. Actually, maybe that is Christianity proper—more proper, anyway, than the scrubbed, shining-teeth-but-toothless Christianity that occupies America’s center stage at present.
In Springtseen’s folksy recordings, he fully situates himself in this tradition. “Live in Dublin” features a series of old-timey spirituals that could serve as Sunday morning worship music, provided you could find the right church (maybe some Pentecostal clapboard number in Oklahoma). Springsteen pulls of a combination of raucous rock and sweaty, foot-stomping revival music. It’s almost like he’s leading a bunch of true believers in worship, or better yet, singing straight into the heavens. Check out his rendition of “This Little Light of Mine,” and just try to remain in your seat.
This is spiritual music and protest music—it’s the music of the people, offering themselves up to God and to each other, and declaring–demanding, then pleading–that the world must be a better place. That’s the American folk tradition.
Pieces of that tradition have always been in Bruce Springsteen. He’s always had more than a bit of the protest rocker about him, though the rebellious stab of “Born in the U.S.A.” is lost on many. Which is hard to believe, given the direct-attack approach of the lyrics:

I got in a little hometown jam
And so they put a rifle in my hands
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

“Magic” is no less direct, with the track “Last to Die” taking John Kerry’s famous post-Vietnam question and turning it into an anthem:

We took the highway till the road went black
We’d marked Truth Or Consequences on our map
A voice drifted up from the radio
And I thought of a voice from long ago
Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?

That’s a Bruce Springsteen lyric, through and through, no less than his more palatable lines about the boardwalk in Jersey.
“Magic” mostly drifts from the folksy spirituality of Springsteen’s most recent non-E Street work. But I like it a ton anyway. The album retains a protesting soul and is filled with allusions to faith (“I want a million different voices speaking in tongues,” he belts in the opener), and it can also take you on a whole other set of journeys. You can listen to the lyrics of “Last to Die” and get pissed off. You can roll down your windows and drive fast to “Gypsy Biker” or “Radio Nowhere.” “Livin’ in the Future” and “I’ll Work for Your Love” are backyard BBQ music if ever there was any. And “Terry’s Song,” the closing ballad, takes us closer to my favorite Springsteen, that raspy singer whose lyrics make you want to light a candle, write a long letter, or lie down and make sense of it all. “Magic” is an American album for this American moment by this wonderfully American musician.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus