Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Your flag it flew so high, it drifted into the sky.

Hearing that the new Springsteen was called Magic, I thought it was the stupidest title, possibly ever. All it needed was an exclamation point; pink, cursive font; and a cover photo of a winking Bruce, and it would be all the proof I needed to believe Springsteen was settling into a career of irrelevance. Nothing he had done before should have given me such thoughts, but still... it's a stupid goddamn title, right?

Listening to the album, of course I was wrong. Yes, the title track clumsily stretches the metaphor of magic tricks to apply to, apparently, the current state of affairs, but the track is dark, subverts the title, and provides a touchstone for the album as a whole. And as for irrelevance, take a look at Springsteen sharing the stage with Arcade Fire. This is a man with a number one album and a tour that's printing money; I'd argue he doesn't need to make a grab at the indie market. (Plus, consider that he's shared the stage in the past with Southside Johnny and Marah - bands that have, like Arcade Fire recently, used Springsteen for inspiration, but have far less cache. It's more about respect than starfucking.)

Already, enough preemptively defending Springsteen for whom he duets with. This album isn't the world-changer that Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone says it is. But it is a hell of an album, and you know what? They're close to being right. Take this with a grain of salt: I loved The Rising, drum loops and all. But this album is one hell of an album, and every just about every song, no matter how upbeat it sounds on first listen, is tinged with anger, regret, and maybe hope. This isn't anything new: just listen to most of Born in the USA. But the new album really takes a look at where we are as a country, and it's framed by an archetypically American sound that Springsteen had a hand in creating.

There are very few missteps: the aforementioned clumsy metaphors, the heavy-handedness of "Last to Die," and the arguable muzzling of the E Street Band. His two Beach Boy-inspired tracks - "Your Own Worst Enemy" and "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" - are sunny as shit and catchy as crap and actually stretch his respectable repetoire without overreaching (for overreaching, see those drum loops). "Gypsy Biker" and "Livin' In the Future" satisfy the need for Bruce-rock without straining any muscles musically. Lyrically it's a different story, as he, respectively tries to pretend the last few years never happened, and that a savior will come back riding a motorcycle (not as cheesy as it sounds, but it really depends on how much you buy into Bruce mythmaking). "I'll Work For Your Love" actually sounds like it could be an outtake from Tracks and is the definition of unchallenging, but damn it if it doesn't sound great. "Devil's Arcade" officially ends the album on a moment of doubt and unease; unofficially ending the album, the hidden track "Terry's Song," for all its folksiness, creaks with a sadness and respect for his lost friend.

Yeah, I'm in the tank for Bruce; I don't think I've ever been anything less than upfront about this. Hell, I wrote a term paper about Springsteen in college (ah, state school). But I approach each new release with a bit of hesitation. This one really surprised me, especially after his last few solo albums. It really can't measure up to his better, earlier stuff, but it's a solid statement from a man who's earned his stripes, knows his legacy, and is kind of pissed at the way the world's turned out. In this world, "the profiteers on Jane Street sold your clothes and your shoes." His father tells him "You know the flag flying over the courthouse/ means certain things are set in stone/ Who we are, what we'll do, and what we won't" and its recounted nostalgically. Now "We don't measure the blood we've drawn anymore, we just stack the bodies outside the door." Back home, "the times they got too clear, so you removed all the mirrors/ Once the family felt secure, now no one's very sure." Framed by these sentiments, "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" becomes less a Beach Boys homage, but an elegy for the small things in life and the romanticized simplicity of the past.

Can't say it'll change your life, but it's certainly a strong statement from a man who could rest on his legacy and play "Rosalita" five times a week to sold-out crowds. And if "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" doesn't lift your skirt, then you're dead inside. It's a scientific fact.


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