On the cusp of the release of Bruce Springsteen’s latest, Magic, I’m not ready to declare it a classic or a masterpiece. It has a few moments that are a bit too predictable, almost somewhat formula. But repeated listening, bolstered by seeing a recording of the performances on The Today Show this past Friday, reinforces what a great artist he is. And it goes beyond musicianship. It’s also what he says about America and Americans.
As an artist, Springsteen’s longevity is almost mind-boggling. Here’s a guy who first captured attention with his music in the 1970s but also could dominate the charts in the 1980s and in the 21st Century. You can’t command audiences and hit the charts for 30+ years without continuing relevance and an ability to speak to the audience. Who can listen to Born To Run and not feel they’re part of the Jersey Shore and, more important, that life there and wherever we may live is built around many of the same joys, heartbreaks and dreams we all know?
Yet as Bruce, like the rest of us, got older, those skills didn’t dull and more of the political crept into his music. Both The River and Nebraska come to mind but what really jumps to the forefront is 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. It is not Bruce simply being an observer of life, it is in no small part him as an observer of America, the good and the bad and the continuing hope it can be better. The title cut is not the flag on the sleeve tune so many regarded it as. It is political commentary. Similarly, there is “My Hometown,” which closes the album and tells a tale with which we either identify or empathize In our hearts and minds, he’s talking about our hometown. Still, this is a commentary on America — the good, the bad, the potential.
If you don’t believe the fans invest in his music, just watch a tape of “My Hometown” performed on The Today Show Friday — or any live performances. Many fans seem almost mesmerized and transported away by the music. But then, how many musicians and bands could lead a nationally broadcast show to push back its newscast and disrupt the rest of the show so they could play more songs than they were scheduled to perform? Yet that is just what Springsteen and the E Street Band did (they were scheduled for four and played seven) for the fans crowding Rockefeller Plaza.
Jump from Born in the U.S.A. to 2002’s The Rising. We have yet to see the great post-9/11 novel or film. Yet this may be the quintessential post-9/11 album. You can read the political into it but the overwhelming arc was reality and hope — how individuals and families felt, how lives were affected and a sense of spirit and unity amidst the sorrow. These were tales frequently told or illustrated at some point through the metaphor of a simple kiss or the touch of a hand. Again, the music can transport us by itself but throughout the songs are heartfelt and honest reflections of the gamut of human emotion and the resiliency of human spirit.
Springsteen followed this by again returning to the roots of American music with Devils & Dust and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. This is roots music not just because it reflects the source of an American sound in music but also a sense and feel of America. There is the touch of the the political but, again, even those songs celebrate being American and being human, in both instances with all our virtues and all our faults.
Magic continues the exploration of America and American values. More than the other releases of the last five years, this is a full range of pop-rock styles, hooks and “Springsteenian” touches. Yet as Springsteen said on The Today Show, there’s a twist of the political, the songwriter shifting the tunes just a little off center. It is not just an exploration of those rock styles, it is a subtle — and sometimes not so subtle — commentary on America and Americans.
The Rising reflected what we Americans, individually and collectively, experienced on 9/11. The “Vote for Change” performances and elements of Devils and Dust and The Seeger Sessions commented on where America was going in the aftermath of that event. Magic looks at where we are and how we got here. It expresses the sense that somehow America has strayed from the ideals and values on which it was based and in which we all believe. Springsteen, in fact, fears America (read, its government) has gone so far astray that we face a very long walk if we hope to get the nation back to those ideals. In fact, when Springsteen introduced “Living in the Future” from Magic on the The Today Show, he talked about the things we love about America — from cheeseburgers and fries to the Bill of Rights but how in the last few years we’ve seen extraordinary rendition, wiretapping and loss of habeas corpus. He did what he does best to raise awareness — “sing about it.”
Although I’ve heard Magic plenty of times now thanks to it leaking on the internet, I will make a special point to go out and buy it Tuesday morning. It won’t be because the quality and mix of the internet version I have isn’t the best or that it’s important to support artists by not using downloads to take their work for free or even that I want to hold it in my hands, although all those play a role. Knowing what’s on it, buying Magic is also buying (and buying into) one of the best parts of America — what it means and what it can be.
The magic of Bruce Springsteen isn’t just his extraordinary musicianship and songwriting. It’s because in expressing himself with those talents he tries to illustrate and hold us all to concepts and ideals upon which America was founded.
You know the flag flyin’ over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we’ll do, and what we want
It’s gonna be a long walk home
“Long Walk Home,” Bruce Springsteen, Magic