Bruce Springsteen's 'Magic' Has Anti-War Message
Thursday , September 27, 2007
By Roger Friedman
Bruce Springsteen has already made his political feelings clear in the last couple of years. Remember his Ted Koppel interview? The series of concerts — Vote for Change — he did to support John Kerry?
On his new album, "Magic," Springsteen jumps right into the fray again. In a dramatic new REM-ish anthem called "Last to Die," he sings: "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake/The last to die for a mistake/Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break/Who'll be the last to die for a mistake."
The mistake is clearly the Iraq war. "We don't measure the blood we've drawn anymore," he sings. "We just stack the bodies outside the door."
"Magic," which hits stores Tuesday but is already widely available on the Internet, seems like a party album at first. But it has a dark underside: blood and dead bodies wend their way through the songs.
Even when things are looking up at least musically — the songs are strong rockers — the lyrics suggest dire, dark things are happening.
In one song, “Seven drops of blood fall” as a woman smooths the front of her dress. In another, a kiss produces “the taste of blood on your tongue.” There’s a “bloody red horizon.”
But I digress: “Magic” could be the release to save Columbia Records, a company at a crossroads.
A few weeks ago, Lynn Hirschberg profiled new chief Rick Rubin in The New York Times Magazine. Rubin, who refuses to work from an office, was nevertheless scouting Los Angeles for new, much more expensive offices rather than for hit records. The story sent off alarms all over the business.
Ironically, it was the prior Sony administration that made “Magic” possible. Critics went berserk when Andy Lack, brought over from NBC, helped finalize a much-vaunted contract for Springsteen said to be worth $100 million. They claimed that Bruce wasn’t worth it, that he was over the hill and not a big seller. Ouch!
But Lack was right. Springsteen is the last of a dying breed of big-name rockers who are indeed worth the money. Not only has he got a fervent, dedicated following — he’s good. In fact, he’s great.
Springsteen’s last E Street Band album, "The Rising," was nominated for Grammy awards because it presented serious stuff about 9/11.
He followed that up with less commercial projects: "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" and "Live in Dublin." You couldn’t dance to any of this, and in this generation of a dumbed-down audience, that was a risk.
You can dance to “Radio Nowhere,” the lead single from “Magic,” and sing along, too. The whole album, made with the E Street Band, is designed for pleasure. There’s nothing here as poignant as “You’re Missing” from “The Rising.”
In concert, “Magic” is going to work like … magic. It doesn’t miss a beat; there are no good stadium bathroom breaks. The whole thing sounds like hit singles, if they still had hit singles.
Fans are going to love “Livin’ in the Future,” with its throwback arrangement to Springsteen’s real “Glory Days.” Clarence Clemons blows his horn, the band swings into action and it’s the Bruce everyone loves. There’s even a sing-along na-na-na chorus at the end.
But don’t be deceived. The lyrics show Bruce’s maturation and his love of stark images:
“Woke up election day/Skies gunpowder and shades of grey/Beneath a dirty sun, I whistle my time away … I opened up my heart to you/It got all damaged and undone.”
You gotta take the bitter with the sweet.
“Magic” is also an album full of rockers, many showcasing Springsteen’s love of the Wall of Sound. “I’ll Work for Your Love” and “Gypsy Biker” — with wild guitar and harmonica solos possibly from Nils Lofgren — stood out for me, and I think after one more spin, “Your Own Worst Enemy” is going to be lodged in my brain forever. It’s an obvious hit.
“Devil’s Arcade” is the closest Springsteen gets to his haunting Western gothic style. It’s a slow brewing beauty of a song too, with melodrama and magnificent imagery: “A bed draped in sunshine, a body that waits/For the touch of your fingers, the end of the day.”
“Devil’s Arcade” would be a great last song on any album, but on “Magic,” it’s a bridge to something more somber. Springsteen wrote “Terry’s Song” for his late friend and personal assistant of 30 years, Terry Magovern, who died last summer. Springsteen played it at Magovern’s funeral, and here it’s a fitting final moment:
“When they built you, brother, they turned dust into gold,” he sings, “When they built you, brother, they broke the mold.” The same could be said for Springsteen, who’s always a mensch.
Will “Magic” be a hit? Even with the downloads, I think so. Springsteen plays the "Today" show Friday morning for the first time ever. He undoubtedly knows things have changed dramatically in the music biz.
And Lack’s critics were right about one thing: the Boss has never sold multimillions of records. But he’s sold the right records to the right people. “Magic” can only bring him new fans to add to the old, and some more Grammys besides.