Bruce Springsteen’s first album of original songs with the E Street Band since he lost the vote for change in 2004 starts with guitars — a wall of angry, droning treble that, for the three minutes of “Radio Nowhere,” is blessedly louder than the oceanic static of bent truths, partisan reporting and general bullshit that passes for life-and-death debate in the new wired order. Springsteen isn’t just pissed about the state of rock & roll radio — that’s like kicking a corpse — although he is blunt about what’s missing. “A thousand guitars . . . pounding drums,” he demands against the racing squall of his band. But “Radio Nowhere” is actually about how we speak and listen to each other through the murk — “Is there anybody alive out there?” he growls, over and over — and how a firm beat, some Telecaster sting and the robust peal of Clarence Clemons’ saxophone can still tell you more about the human condition than a thousand op-ed words.
Magic is, in one way, the most openly nostalgic record Springsteen has ever made. The arrangements, the performances and Brendan O’Brien’s wall-of-surf production are mined with echoes and near-direct quotes of classic records, including Springsteen’s: the early-Sixties beach-radio bounce of “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” the overcast-Pet Sounds orchestration of “Your Own Worst Enemy” the “Jungleland” ring of Roy Bittan’s piano rainfall in “I’ll Work for Your Love.” “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” sounds like it strutted over from The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. “Livin’ in the Future” is “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” with a new, thick coat of twang and a full tank of lust. After wrapping himself in a thousand fiddles on The Seeger Sessions, Springsteen has rediscovered the boardwalk-dance-party power of Born to Run and the Mitch Ryder and Jackie DeShannon encore covers in his 1975 and ’78 shows.
But Springsteen’s songwriting here is also intricately wired with outrage and disbelief. The pain, courage and genuine love of country that he saw and felt after 9/11 and put to song with the E Street Band on The Rising have gone up in flames and betrayal. He makes no direct references to Iraq, Bush or the so-called Patriot Act. He doesn’t need them. The pared metaphors and straight talk carry the weight and body count. Like “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Gypsy Biker” is the sober homecoming of a war veteran with images of anxious preparation (“We pulled your cycle out of the garage/And polished up the chrome”) and wasted effort (“The speculators made their money on the blood you shed”). Except this time, the soldier is returning in a coffin, and the devastated singer is numb with grief, mourning over lines of cocaine. “Last to Die” takes off like “Thunder Road,” but into a darkness of unknown depth. “Who will be the last to die for a mistake?” Springsteen sings, gripping the wheel and marking the miles in fires and martyrs from both sides of the road. And the title song, a skeleton dance of acoustic guitar and cimbalom, is a catalog of tricks, not magic. At the end, Springsteen adds up the high price of White House snake oil in a voice strained with exhaustion: “There’s bodies hangin’ in the trees/This is what will be, this is what will be.”
If we let it. Even when he was gunning Chevys in his old turnpike songs, Springsteen never wrote merely about escape. “Growin’ Up,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “Backstreets” were about choices, the work of freedom. The same goes for Magic and its vintage Stone Pony-a-go-go. Only the stakes are even higher. In “Long Walk Home,” a muscular update of “My Hometown,” a father tells his son, about to ship out, the true meaning of national service and sacrifice: “You know that flag/Flying over the courthouse/Means certain things are set in stone/Who we are, what we’ll do/And what we won’t.” We only know who dies last for a mistake when we all stand up and say, “Enough.”