It’s been a tough two decades for the Boss. Since the glory days book-ended by Born to Run (1975) and Born in the U.S.A. (1984), Bruce Springsteen has shown himself incapable of putting together a solid album. Halfway through the ’80s, Springsteen turned into the kind of musician that could only produce singles: the title tracks from The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) and Devils & Dust (2005), the award-heavy “Streets of Philadelphia” and the long-lived but only recently unleashed “My City of Ruins.” These aren’t even clear victories, for that matter. “My City of Ruins” — a song about the depressed and destitute condition of Asbury Park that was effectively appropriated for a post-9/11 telethon — was glorious in its stripped-down, pin-drop quiet telethon rendition but was destroyed by Brendan O’Brien’s glossy, shrink-wrapped production on 2002’s The Rising. Truly, the heavy strings and pasteurization O’Brien has effected on the last few Springsteen albums — The Rising, Devil’s & Dust, and now Magic, the Boss’s reported return to form with the amorphous E-Street Band — has robbed Springsteen of his still-youthful energy and blue-collar credentials, something that has always been key to the believability of his sometimes overly corny manner.
Although the characters of Magic look anxiously to the future, the music itself tries to reimagine the past. And although it’s easy to shrug off “Radio Nowhere,” the album’s first single, as another great single preceding another mediocre effort, it’s far from the only worthwhile song on Magic. “Livin’ in the Future,” in fact, does the best job of recapturing the kind of “Promised Land” or “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” energy of late-’70s Springsteen. The simplicity of “Radio Nowhere” is borderline idiotic, but something about Springsteen’s delivery carries it back over the line to anthemic. This is what Springsteen decided — rightly so — that he’d always wanted to write about when he wrote the songs that became Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978): the emptiness of lower-middle class suburban life, devoid of anything inspiring, made into driving, hopeful (and sometimes paradoxically inspiring) anthems. “Gypsy Biker,” with its reverb-heavy lead guitar so reminiscent of Johnny Marr, is only a peg below “Radio Nowhere” in its incensing intensity, and “I’ll Work for Your Love” goes from trying to recapturing the dejected opening of “Thunder Road” to the copy-and-paste songwriting style of the soft-rock songs of The Rising. The title track is like something from Nebraska reimagined through the prism of The Seeger Sessions, with the modest success of earnestness found in “The Ghost of Tom Joad” but without the considerable literary allusions.
The album’s failings can be pinned solely on O’Brien. As with The Rising — in which our hero’s brilliant “My City of Ruins” is castrated by a full band and a heavy hand on the mixing board — the songs that feature O’Brien’s trademark sentimental strings are the ones whose potential we’ll never truly know. “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” and “You’ll Be Coming Down” could be great songs if they weren’t awash in the glossy film of O’Brien’s heart-string production. Indeed, “Your Own Worst Enemy” is three solid minutes of pulled musical punches, with the background string work pushing the song along rather than the Boss himself, and the result is that the song sounds like it would be more at home in a coffee commercial near Christmastime.
But the sparing use of production of this album — overall, that is — is a strikingly good omen from Springsteen and does, at the very least, herald a coming return to form, if Magic doesn’t constitute the return itself. Magic is just that: a sleight-of-hand trick by the spokesman of the down-and-out blue-collar Everyman that turns the listener — like one of Springsteen’s classic characters — into someone hopeful in his or her desperation.