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Springsteen sings for the believers

September 30, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band

"Magic" (Columbia)


There comes a point in most believers' lives when faith transforms from an inevitability to a choice. Something alters life's usual patterns -- a personal tragedy, perhaps, or an intellectual realization -- and what seemed so true suddenly can't be trusted. Any creed is vulnerable to such a crisis.

Getting past it can feel like an accomplishment or a sneaking betrayal, depending on whether you genuinely renew your convictions or just decide that credulity is the best way to survive.

Few artists must feel the obligation to keep the faith as heavily as Bruce Springsteen. For nearly 40 years, he's relentlessly returned to one great subject: an ordinary person confronting some higher power, whether it's love or death or the state patrol, and making an ennobling if sometimes fatally wrong-headed commitment to act.

Springsteen's fascination with these personal epiphanies has earned him a massive cult, and why not? His lyrics blend religious and secular scenarios to describe the various personal apocalypses his fans encounter. Rife with Catholic imagery but attached to the kind of rousing rock that follows directly from American revivalist and black church traditions, Springsteen turns his tales into rituals. Each hearing allows fans to renew their devotion, not just to the Boss but to their own paths.

What happens, though, when the prophet begins to wonder if it's all a hollow game? That's when the choice comes in, to reinvest or abandon ship. On "Magic," Springsteen's 16th studio album and the latest to reunite him with the E Street Band -- his gospel choir -- he recommits fully to the uplifting oomph of his rock 'n' roll formula.

Zealots will thrill to what the E Street Band accomplishes on "Magic," which gets a full release Tuesday. Roadhouse rock that would lie flaccid in anybody else's hands hooks the ear, sounding not exactly fresh but urgent, necessary.

Springsteen pulls out all of his vocal tricks -- the breathy bluesman's bark, the ex-choirboy croon, the vaguely western hobo snarl -- and smiles as they sell so beautifully. He does the same thing with his lyrics; it seems impossible that this catechism-quoter could get away with another line like "Your tears, they fill the rosary / at your feet, my temple of bones," but within the somber repetitive setting of "I'll Work for Your Love," he does. Even for a lapsed Springsteenian like this critic, the sheer backbone of this album offers delight.

But a sadder and wiser willfulness permeates these 12 tracks. It's present in Brendan O'Brien's production, which removes all gunk from the formulas Springsteen's been using forever and gets them shining. And it's deeply embedded in lyrics that examine what happens after illusions are shattered and life just goes on.

The first doubter Springsteen confronts is himself. "Radio Nowhere," the album's lead track, depicts the Boss lost on a lonely highway, wondering if he can connect to anything pop has to offer now. The song is discouragingly fogeyish if considered from a topical standpoint. But as an invocation, "Radio Nowhere" gains force. O'Brien compresses the E Street Band's contributions into a single groove. The circular structure Springsteen often employs -- in which one phrase tumbles into another like Jack Kerouac's unfurling scroll -- takes his words beyond surface meaning. The chanted refrain signals entry into that sacred zone where the communal clout of the band turns worn rock tropes into revelations.

From that point on, "Magic" unfolds beyond any reference point besides Springsteen's own body of work -- which makes sense, since it's a ritual object, with every song designed to fit into the arena shows where devotees will soon commune.

Elements of old favorites continually surface: "Livin' in the Future" resurrects the jumping horns of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out"; there's a whiff of "I Wanna Marry You" around "Girls in Their Summer Clothes"; the descending chorus of "Long Walk Home" reaches back to "My Hometown."

Under O'Brien's relentlessly strict guidance, every E Streeter finds his Zen: the keyboards build moodily, sax man Clarence Clemons blusters with more focus than usual, those Nils Lofgren / Steve Van Zandt guitar riffs rip, and Max Weinberg is a big-hearted machine on the drums.

And though the songs tell stories, only one -- the eerie "Devil's Arcade," in which a lover pleads with her desert-damaged soldier boy -- aims for the specificity of earlier ballads such as "Meeting Across the River."

Instead, some revisit very familiar scenarios, like a girl's front porch or a highway at night, but inject much more ambiguity into the scenes. Others, like "Your Own Worst Enemy" and the title track, are extended metaphors, exploring the emotional experience of self-questioning in ways that end up feeling surprisingly personal.

"Magic" is a record of this moment -- Springsteen makes quiet reference to what he sees as an errant Bush administration and, alternately, to a marriage in its somewhat shaky midlife -- but it also aims for timelessness.

It's the way Springsteen injects his American Bible stories with the air of disbelief that makes "Magic" a truly mature and memorable album. He knows his fans need that rush, that jump outside their own feelings of disappointment and limitation, that he's given them for so long. Yet more and more, he knows that disappointment and limitation are his m├ętier, and that sometimes a giant saxophone fill and a chorus about hungry hearts can't solve the problem. "Magic" provides transcendence that allows for listeners to keep their feet on the ground. Believe in it, if you choose.


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