Bruce Springsteen has always believed in the power of redemption, whether through love, or rock 'n' roll, or the resilient national spirit at the core of The Rising that helped the country rebound from the 2001 terrorist attacks. "Have a little faith," he urged, "there's magic in the night."
But with this Magic, his powerful, complex new album with the E Street Band, he's no longer sure.
There's a striking dichotomy at work on Magic. On the one hand, Springsteen's music, and the Spectorish wall-of-sound production of Brendan O'Brien, revisits the classic, exuberant sound of Springsteen's early days: muscular hooks, swaggering sax swaths from Clarence Clemons, Roy Bittan's cascading piano runs, Danny Federici's billowing organ, Max Weinberg's thunderous drums, and a triple onslaught of slashing guitars.
On the other, Springsteen's lyrics probe the heart of nearly impenetrable darkness, which has moved in from the edge of town to become enveloping.
Even "Living in the Future," which sounds like a midsummer strut on the boardwalk with a palliative chorus of "don't worry, Darlin'," takes place under "Skies gunpowder...a dirty sun," and is riddled with a sense of decay. Even a kiss is marred by a "taste of blood on your tongue."
The sorcery in question throughout Magic, though not named specifically, is the evil alchemy of lies, betrayal, corruption, and twisted realities concocted by the Cheney-Bush cabal. "There's bodies hangin' in the trees/This is what will be," Springsteen soberly intones at the end of the chilling title track. What follows is the fiercest rocker on the album, "Last to Die," based on John Kerry's famous quote about Vietnam: "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?" Now applied to Iraq, it's protest song as fist-waving anthem, no longer stoked by youthful ambition but by anger, disillusionment, and frustration.
Springsteen's always been adept at mingling yearnings for personal fulfillment with socio-political points. The "runaway American dream" of "Born to Run" wasn't a casually tossed-off line. But on Magic, he's outdone himself, with every song summing up the prevailing apocalyptic miasma sucking the soul out of a fractured nation, thanks to this Voldemortian White House. As Springsteen wrote in another context: "Blame it on the lies that killed us/Blame it on the truth that ran us down."