Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Do you believe in Magic?

By now you may have read several reviews of the new Springsteen record, “Magic.” Perhaps this isn’t as much a review, but more of a reflection. I grew up on Springsteen. In fact, my very first big rock concert was the D.C. date of the ’99 E Street Band reunion tour that my sister took me to, when I was 13 years old. We were sitting behind the stage and in the upper level, and it still remains to this day one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Naturally, a man with as many fans as he is going to have high expectations placed on him for a new record. But Springsteen is no stranger to high expectations. In 1975, when he was writing and recording with the E Street Band for his then-upcoming album Born To Run, his record label had threatened to drop him from their contract if this one didn’t sell. Fresh off two semi-flops(which are now regarded as classics, Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle), Springsteen and crew spent 18 hours a day and more in the studio writing, recording, re-writing, and re-recording, until they were close to killing each other. The result was the best record of the 1970’s, in my opinion, and on top of that, a record that still sells millions each year and is continuously finding new generations of adoring fans. The romanticized themes of aimlessness, escape, loss and friendship, as well as getting the fuck out of New Jersey, and the characters whose stories he was telling, proved to be timeless, and Born To Run is that rare record that is still as important thirty years after its release as it was then. What’s more, Springsteen himself has stayed vital and relevant til this day. While many of his peers are putting out their third rehashings of their greatest hits collections, Springsteen has put out four multi-platinum studio albums since his first greatest hits collection came out in the late 90’s. As many writers and critics have already figured out by now, Bruce Springsteen occupies a strange place in American pop culture.

Which brings us to Magic, an album that, from the title alone, sounded like it would be a rip-roaring return to his early days of bumming around the Jersey shore while checking out girls by day, and tearing up the club scene by night with the E Street Band. Critics everywhere were looking at it as a newer, updated Wild, Innocent, and after the adult-contemporary leanings of 2002’s The Rising, which was his first album with the E Street Band since 1983’s Born In The U.S.A, this notion was welcomed by Springsteen fans everywhere. The bad news is that Bruce is almost 60, and honestly, there’s no way he would be able to capture that youthful spirit again. Those early albums were so linked to the time and place in which they were written, that to expect him to be able to sit down and write another “Rosalita(Come Out Tonight” is pretty pointless. Magic sounds like the same Bruce, but an older, wiser, more mature Bruce. The bright production value and upbeat, rock-driven tempos that lay the grounds for most of the songs here are deceptively strange armor for the somewhat dark, dreary, and realist lyrical content that lie slightly underneath the surface. With an uncanny ability to use lyrical ambiguity to connect to fans everywhere, regardless of their political leanings, Springsteen touches on Hurricane Katrina, the lies of the Bush administration, the neglect of American soldiers returning home from Iraq, as well as the more personal topics of aging, love, sex, and death. The first single “Radio Nowhere” is an obvious single choice, but after listening to the rest of the album, may be one of the weakest songs on the record. Songs like “Livin’ In The Future” and “I’ll Work For Your Love,” do genuinely sound like they could have been taken from Born To Run or 1980’s The River, while songs like “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” and “Your Own Worst Enemy” try to achieve their goal of revisiting Springsteen’s early pop leanings, and most of all his obsession with rock producer Phil Spector, but unfortunately fail at their attempt. Spector was famous for inventing the “Wall Of Sound” approach to recording music, highlighted in the vast, epic sounds of 60’s pop classics such as The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” Well, unfortunately Phil Spector is on trial for murdering his wife, and the rich, dusty, analog sounds of the “Wall Of Sound” technique have been more or less obliterated by the digital age of recording.

Instead, we have Brendan O’Brien, who is most famous for recording Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, who ham handedly interprets this idea by adding layers of cheesy synthesized strings and weird echo/reverb/delay affects to his voice. He touches up the record too much and makes it sound prettier than it needs to be. In addition, one can’t help but feel that this record sounds really rushed. The various members of the E Street Band flew down on the weekends to hurriedly record their parts, and didn’t seem to be as integral to the writing process as they have in the past. As a result, it has a tendency to sound somewhat disjointed at times. Clarence Clemon’s memorable saxophone solos, always a focal part of any Springsteen track, seem to breeze by without notice, playing it safe, simply repeating the melodies rather than building on them, as he has done so well in the past. Gary Tallent, a talented and capable bass player, may as well have played his lines on a keyboard. I understand that these folks have got the recording process down pretty pat by now, and it shouldn’t take them months to write and record like it used to, but working together as a unit in the writing and recording process might have served them well if they were trying to recapture their older sounds, after all.

While these issues are in fact minor faults of an otherwise wonderful record, Springsteen would be better suited to look for a new producer next time, as O’Brien’s 90’s radio style of recording can’t capture everything Springsteen is capable of, and seems more to diminish it than anything else.

Not all is lost, however, as there are some truly fantastic songs on here. “Gypsy Biker,” “Long Walk Home,” “Devil’s Arcade,” “Terry’s Song” and “I’ll Work For Your Love” are some of the best songs of his career, both taking from and building on his extensive catalogue. In all honesty, I would not say that this is a good Springsteen album to start on. For those of you who are more into the folk and country side of the spectrum, "Nebraska" is a classic. For the hopeless romantic, "The River," "Born To Run," and "Tunnel Of Love" are essential. For the bar crawlers, "The Wild, Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle" will help you get your drink on, and for those times when you’re feeling empty and lost, "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" will speak volumes to you. Clearly the Boss is alive and well, and doesn’t plan to quit making music anytime soon. I am driving up to D.C. to see him on Monday, November 9th, so while most of you are sitting through your three hour lab, I will be drunkenly yelling along to “Badlands.” While the idea of a three hour lab may actually sound more appealing to some of you than sitting through a three hour Boss concert, let’s just say we can agree to disagree.