Late last year Bruce Springsteen invited producer Brendan O’Brien up to his New Jersey house to play him a batch of new songs he had been working on. “It was kind of surreal,” says O’Brien, who previously worked with Springsteen on 2002’s The Rising and 2005’s Devils and Dust. “We literally sat in his living room, he hands me a book of lyrics and he played me the songs on the guitar.” O’Brien then had the unenviable task of telling Bruce which songs worked, and which ones didn’t. “He gauges peoples reactions and I have to be as honest with him as I can,” O’Brien says. “Some of them had a certain voice that seemed to fit all together — and some didn’t have that same voice — so we decided which ones to pursue.” The songs that survived were taken down to Atlanta’s Southern Tracks Studios this March by O’Brien, Springsteen and the E Street Band. The resulting album, Magic, was recorded in eight weeks, and will be released on October 2nd.
The lead single will be “Radio Nowhere,” which O’Brien says changed very little from the version Springsteen played him at his house last year. “It’s a pretty straight-ahead rocker,” O’Brien says. “The most straightforward song I’ve heard him do in years.” “Long Walk Home,” which Springsteen debuted on tour last year with the Seeger Sessions Band, is an emotionally uplifting ballad that invokes 2002’s “My City In Ruins.” “That’s one of my favorite songs that he’s done in a long time,” says O’Brien. “It’s mournful, but also hopeful. It has very introspective verses and then he opens up lyrically as the song progresses. It hits me in a real great spot.” O’Brien describes the song “Living In The Future” as a “throwback to “Hungry Heart,” an R&B thing.”
Recording with the E Street Band proved to be a logistical challenge, largely due to the fact that drummer Max Weinberg had to tape “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” during the week. Springsteen devoted weekdays to overdubbing and cutting vocal tracks, but each weekend a core group of E Streeters — Springsteen, Weinberg, bassist Gary Tallent and pianist Roy Bittan — would record the instrumental tracks. The other members of the E Street Band, including keyboard player Danny Federici and guitarists Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, were called in as needed to cut their parts. “It’s easier to manage the songs with less people,” O’Brien says. “Once we know what we’re doing, we brought the others in to do overdubs.”
But Springsteen insisted on being in the studio when Clarence Clemons cut his saxophone parts. “I appointed Bruce ‘senior vice president in charge of Clarence’s saxophone,'” O’Brien says. “There’s a whole dynamic there that spans decades. I don’t even get in the middle of it. I’m just a cheerleader.”
A world tour with the E Street Band will kick off right around the time Magic comes out, but no details have been released. “There’s songs that when we were recording them he would go, ‘˜I just know this song’s going to work great live,'” says O’Brien. “When it comes to being a bandleader and knowing what his audience wants, I think he’s one of the best ever.”
For more on Springsteen’s “Magic,” read Rolling Stone’s exclusive interview with manager Jon Landau here.