In the pantheon of Springsteen albums, his 15th one will not be remembered as a great album, but instead as the right album for the right time. Just like 2002’s The Rising was perfect a year after 9/11, with its hopeful tunes about redemption and courage and healing. Magic’s mood is darker, sombre, at times mournful, and at times almost sinister. The title reflects the moment where America stands right now, where it does not quite believe all that has happened, where everything feels like: magic.
Springsteen—one of America’s greatest living songwriters—weaves complex, intricate stories about the country on Magic (Columbia Records). This is his most political album to date—here’s a man astonished, confused, anguished and disillusioned by the direction that America has taken in the last six years—and yet it’s all shrouded in riddles. His characters reflect that anguish and sense of bewilderment. He makes no direct reference to Iraq, or the attendant consequences of the so-called War on Terror. And there’s certainly more than one way of interpreting every song.
The title song, Magic— sung in a quiet, spectral voice, accompanied by a guitar and mandolin—is about the new realities that have been created, when it seems to be all about tricks, about how clever words are used to shroud the truth and nothing is as it seems. The song begins with a simple description of a magician’s oeuvre: I got a coin in my palm/I can make it disappear/I got a card up my sleeve/Name it and I’ll pull it out of your ear. By the next verse, the lyrics are almost sinister, with allusions to some of the darker chapters of recent American history: I got shackles on my wrist/Soon I’ll slip ’em I’ll be gone/Chain me in box in your river/And I’ll rise singin’ this song/Trust none of what you hear/And less of what you see/This is what will be/This is what will be.
Last to Die’s chorus sums up how the majority of Americans feel about the Iraq war today: Who’ll be the last to die, for a mistake/whose blood will spill/whose heart will break. Gypsy Biker’s a lament like Born in the USA, about a veteran coming back home—except he’s in a body bag. By the end of the song, the protagonist’s so grief-stricken that all he can do is smoke cocaine and get stoned.
Probably the two best songs in the album—Livin’ in the Future, and Long Walk Home—are also deeply political. Livin’ in the Future, with its breezy nostalgic sound, echoes disbelief, while Long Walk Home—an update on My Hometown—is a dark lament about lost ideals, and the effort it will take to win them back.
Musically, Magic is as close to pop as Springsteen’s gotten since 1984’s mega-hit Born in the USA. It’s also his most musically accessible album. It’s muscular, with sharp hooks and soaring riffs, and often irredeemably catchy (Radio Nowhere, the opening track, is a good example—musically, it kicks butt with its relentlessness.) If there’s criticism that can be levelled, it’s that Magic feels slightly processed, with Springsteen’s voice sounding like it was swept through multiple filters, and the mighty and magnificent E Street band often sounding restrained (of course, all of that vanishes on stage, where the songs are just majestic).
Magic proves that nearly 35 years after they set about making music on the south shores of New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen and the band that’s still with him still have a few tricks up their sleeves.
Magic is available at music stores for Rs399.
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