The sound of Magic, Bruce Springsteen's new CD out today, suggests a return to rock - the pumping, hard-driving kind that brightened 1984's Born in the U.S.A. Although the E Street Band isn't named on the cover, the eight-piece group is back with the Boss again, the first time since 2002's The Rising.
But don't be fooled by the new album's bright, punchy finish. Like Born in the U.S.A., a lyrical somberness at times seethes underneath the charging, bombastic arrangements. Unlike that heralded, 23-year-old smash, Magic sounds overly deliberate and meticulous.
But it's still a welcome burst of rowdy Springsteen pop-rock, a sound missing on his last two efforts: the dragging, literary Devils & Dust and the loose, folk-suffused We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Magic is a break from the grand, thematic albums. Each cut is a slightly mannered work unto itself, with no connecting thread.
The CD kicks off with a bit of '80s rock nostalgia: Riding on chord progressions strikingly similar to Tommy Tutone's 1982 chart topper "867-5309/Jenny," "Radio Nowhere" speaks of Springsteen's need for some musical inspiration: "This is radio nowhere/Is there anybody alive out there ... /I just want to hear some rhythm." A wistful sense also underpins "You'll Be Comin' Down," the next track, but Clarence Clemons' smoking sax solo helps lift the song. He blows a piercing opening on the catchy, swaggering "Livin' in the Future," which sounds like an outtake from Born in the U.S.A.
Things turn slightly odd on "Your Own Worst Enemy," which sports a faux-baroque veneer. The arrangement - chimes, timpani, swelling strings and shadowy background vocals - sounds like a stab at Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys.
Underneath the musical density of Magic, Springsteen doesn't push aside politics. The title track, about a performer conning his audience, could be a metaphorical swipe at President Bush. Over a somber arrangement of acoustic guitars and light percussion, Springsteen croons: "Now there's a fire down below/But it's comin' up here/So leave everything you know/And carry only what you fear." It's the most sober moment on the album.
The lyrical message doesn't lighten on the next cut, "Last to Die." Addressing war, Springsteen asks, "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake. ... Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break?" The CD ends with "Terry's Song," a hidden track. The moving, stripped-down ballad, a tribute to Springsteen's longtime friend Terry Magovern who died July 30, is the most soulful moment on the album.
Magic is by no means a get-down, roadhouse jam of a record. The sepia-toned cover shot of a grim-looking Springsteen pretty much gives that away. The New Jersey superstar seemingly wanted to get back with his old buddies and rock out like they used to do. But times have become harder and sadder since Springsteen's heyday with the E Street Band. And underneath the shiny, swirling new music, darker sentiments echo.