There are two Bruce Springsteens. One, let’s call him Bombastic Bruce, went through 15 months and marathon 16-hour recording sessions to produce just eight overblown rock tracks. The other, Bare-Bones Bruce if you will, made some bitter, morose songs at home with just a guitar, harmonica and his old tape recorder before bunging them on an album as is.
Both Springsteens are hugely talented – ‘Born To Run’ and ‘Nebraska’ aren’t considered rock classics for nothing. But you only need two fingers to count the number of times they’ve actually met up to share a bottle of whisky. There was ‘The River’. And now there’s ‘Magic’.
Effectively a collection of Bare-Bones songs beefed up by Bombastic (and the returning E-Street Band), The Boss’ 15th release is sensitive, articulate bluster. This man can think. But he still knows how to rock too. The 100-miles-down-the-highway ‘Radio Nowhere’ is the best song Pearl Jam never recorded – lean and taut, there’s none of the self-indulgent guitar, keyboard and saxophone noodling that weighed down his last collaboration with the E-Streeters. In fact, whereas 2001’s bloated ‘The Rising’ seemed like it was making up for his 18-year split with the backing band, ‘Magic’ sounds focused, fresh, even effortless.
Springsteen’s lyrics too are more restrained, the heavy handed calls for post-9/11 unity are replaced by the more familiar slice-of-life stories about blue-collar folks like those he explored on 2005’s muted ‘Devils & Dust’. But this is the man who once criticised his country’s leaders in such a patriotic-sounding song that the clueless Ronald Regan embraced it as a political calling card.
So scratch just below the surface of songs like the harmonica-fuelled powerhouse ‘Gypsy Biker’, piano bar sing-along ‘I’ll Work For Your Love’ and the Clarence Clemons sax workout ‘Livin’ In The Future’ you’ll find veiled allusions to the Iraq war.
But, even at his most overt, Springsteen doesn’t resort to crude Bush bashing. The sublime title track, a quiet storm with lyrics like “I’ll cut you in half/ While you’re smiling ear to ear/ And the freedoms that you sought’s/ Driftin’ like a ghost amongst the trees”, compares an illusionist’s sleight of hand to the US President’s erosion of civil liberties. More powerful still is the slow burning ‘Devil’s Arcade’ – Nils Lofgren and Stevie Van Zandt’s atmospheric guitars complemented by a sombre string arrangement – about a young soldier doing service in Saddam’s kingdom.
The angrily defiant ‘Last To Die’ takes an even more direct approach – searing guitars and a brazen beat are paired with the lines: “We don’t measure the blood/ we’ve drawn anymore/ We just stack the bodies outside the door” and a refrain of: “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake”.
No matter how political Sprongsteen gets, though, he’s buried his messages in incredibly listenable songs – the kind built to get the fists pumping as he tours the US of A. And yet the darkness on the edge of town remains. The light and breezy ‘Girls In Their Summer Clothes’ is tinged with the sadness of a lonely man ignored by the world; ‘Long Walk Home’ might sound like a rousing anthem and the most optimistic here, but beyond the prerequisite Clemons solo it paints a less than bright future.
Both Bombastic and Bare-Bones should be proud.
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.