As sure as the weather (once was), Bruce Springsteen’s triumphant ‘return to form’ albums come with astonishing regularity. For ‘return to form’, one could substitute returns to base, to a sound that is classic, solid, and – thanks to good songwriting – a crucial step away from being merely formulaic.
The last of these spring-like albums was 2002’s The Rising, an album that bravely confronted the nightmare of September 11th, seeking closure on the terror. It was an album that, against a backdrop of massacre and impending war, was strangely uplifting – thanks in part to the running order which interspersed big sounding numbers like Lonesome Day, The Fuse, and The Rising amongst the more sombre moments (including the beautiful album closer My City of Ruins).
This album, though sharing a largely upbeat sound – thanks to the combination of the E-Street band and producer Brendan O’Brien (who also produced The Rising, not to mention a rake of Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young albums) – is a mixed beast with a huge dollop of pessimism hiding behind that falsely re-assuring full sound.
The selling line for this album, predictably, is that Bruce has returned his recent politcal soapbox to the closet, and is back to singing songs about American Girls, American Cars, and American bittersweet love. Something reinforced by the choice of the lead single – the big rocker Radio Nowhere. And what could be more American and rock than driving into the American night searching for a radio station. “I want a thousand guitars, I want a thousand drums, I want a thousand voices speaking in tongues”, the boss sings in his trademarked gravelly twang. Just as Born in the USA was adopted by widely diverse groups – from anti-war Vietnam Vets through to state-sponsored terrorism advocate Ronald Reagan – this song is ambiguous enough to propel Bruce back, once more, into popularity in the States, and yet it contains a continuous theme that runs through the album, the search for home, and for community.
One of the big swinging E-Street songs on the album, livin in the future – which producer O’Brien rightly remarked to Rolling Stone magazine recalls Hungry Heart more than a little – breezes over the listener, and you can imagine already crowds from Atlanta to Athens (Greece as well as Georgia) dancing in the aisles, but listen behind Clarence Clemmons smiling sax and you’ll hear:
“My ship liberty sailed away
On a bloody red horizon
The groundkeeper opened the gates
And let the wild dogs run in”
There are plenty of ‘Baby’s thrown into the mix, and some fine love songs crop up in there, but this is far from the advertised bruised retreat after the dissapointment of Bush’s re-election.
Title track Magic is soft, acousting, and darkly sinister. We move from magic conjuring tricks through to blood drenched blades and bodies hanging in trees. It’s one of the more blatant songs on the album, and starts the running order through to the album’s closer Devil’s Arcade. It’s a running order that includes last to die and Long Walk Home, and the Iraq war hangs heavy on the air.
Perhaps the album would have been better titled Long Walk Home, the song that was previewed for audiences during the Seeger sessions tour. It’s a big proud song about all the things that make America (and Springsteen’s music) great, and how far away from that American ideal we’ve come – ‘it’s going to be a long walk home’.
What none of this conveys though is the fact that the album is packed full to bursting point with great and memorable tunes. This coupling of a familiar, tried, tested, and loved form of music – the big sound of the e-street band – alongside the searing and searching lyrics that makes this album worthwhile, in a way that one hundred stripped down anti-war folk albums will never be.
A welcome return from the BOss, but certainly no retreat.