Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
liché is Bruce Springsteen's metier. The Boss has always understood the diners and motorcycles and dotted yellow lines that others who cram them into verse have heads stuffed too full of tarot, dharma, and Zarathustra to really touch. He's never "elevated" clichés; he's explained them, and some of his songs—Nebraska's "Highway Patrolman" comes to mind—do something a lot trickier than make new clothes of old cloth: they remind us why we keep this stuff around in the first place. So that's why we have so many songs about highways.
Thus when Bruce Springsteen is having a dull enough day to call an album Magic it's not a danger sign; when one song is called "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" and another "Gypsy Biker" those aren't, either. When the first track is erected upon a radio-as-somethingorother metaphor Bruce doesn't have any more of a grip on than you do, that's fine too, because making metaphors is beneath him. When "Your Own Worst Enemy" sounds like the Arcade Fire, that's worrying, 'cause it's supposed to be the other way round. But little on Magic outright falters, which is why it's hard at first to explain how unappealing it is.
The single and leadoff track is called "Radio Nowhere", and its chorus is catchy, and so is its hazy metallic guitar and sense of dread, comic-book Cormac McCarthy—but it's limp and distant and doesn't go anywhere. When Springsteen says "I just want to hear some rhythm" in the aging howl he's been refining for decades, he's momentarily present enough to mean something, but a second later the song's just words and fuzz and 4/4. Other tracks sound like piles of debris, gathered-up mounds of roadside weeds, this from Route 61 and this from the 405 and this from Bruce's driveway, and if those have nothing in common save asphalt that's the only thing these songs manage to describe. To work, to inflate his tropes till we wonder why we were inclined to shrug them off, Springsteen has to get close to these bloodless archetypes, has to be more intimate with made-up Chevys and generic lovers than Bob Dylan probably is with real people. He doesn't do that here. Sometimes he's imminent—"Long Walk Home"—and sometimes transcendent—"Last to Die," which I guess is about Iraq, except Iraq is in a car, on a highway—but he's never both, and anyone can be either.
I like this theory, but it's easy to say this stuff, which is why I was relieved, on another listless trip through these songs, to discover that one of them obligingly gets right everything the others get wrong, an invaluable illustration. What's more, it's the title track, "Magic," which rather than referring to love or art or—God forbid—rock 'n' roll, eschews metaphor altogether for that old something better. It's soft and simple and loping and short, about all the parlor tricks Spingsteen can do—coins, cards, rabbits, saws—and he comes so close so many times to making something cheap of it and never does. You can hear the unuttered lines, ghosts in the mix—these small illusions are like his love, see, or his career as a recording artist is just a trick—and he turns his back on all of them, one by one. The song lopes past, dogged, nothing but a litany of old pictures the singer clutches so close they start to wriggle.
This is what Bruce Springsteen is for: lattices, frameworks, symbol systems left to rust; lips against the stone, breathing it alive. He's still got it; it's not the sort of thing you lose. Maybe it's the sort of thing you grow weary of. So hackneyed is it to call an artist's province magic that I spent a whole song worrying Springsteen would, but there's no other way to describe some art, and certainly no other way to describe his. But magic tricks are so thin and fragile—let the light touch them the wrong way and the audience won't even understand what they were meant to be. They'll just know something went wrong. As it has.