10 Years Ago, Bruce Springsteen Tackled Bush-Era Disillusionment on 'Magic'
Had he not come to his senses and reunited the E Street Band in 1999, Bruce Springsteen surely would’ve done so a few years later. The attacks of 9/11 and the wars they begat plunged America into a decade of fear and uncertainty. It was a time of intense soul-searching on a national level. There was no way Bruce was going to stay out of the conversation.
Between 2002 and 2009, Springsteen and the reactivated E Streeters recorded three studio albums with producer Brendan O’Brien, best known for his work with Pearl Jam. The dark and meditative middle part of this trilogy, Magic, arrived 10 years ago this week (Sept. 25, 2007 on vinyl; Oct. 2, 2007 on CD), and it stands as the last truly great album in Bruce’s catalog (at least, for now).
With its jacked-up bar band sound and thoughtful lyricism, Magic was a reminder of why younger groups like the Hold Steady, Arcade Fire, the Killers, and the National were suddenly talking up the Boss and spearheading an indie revaluation of this ultimate dad-rock icon.
After the solo acoustic Devils & Dust (2005) and the covers album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Magic was the E Street follow-up to The Rising, Springsteen’s reaction to 9/11. While it’s nuanced and multidimensional, The Rising is very much the optimistic album it needed to be. It’s about getting up, dusting off, honoring the fallen, and finding a way forward. “A little revenge and this too shall pass,” Springsteen sings on opener “Lonesome Day.” Later in that song, he warns, “Better ask questions before you shoot,” anticipating some of the issues that would rip the country apart by the time he got around to making another record.
When Magic arrived in September 2007, George W. Bush was part-way through his second term and the troop surge in Iraq was reaching its peak. Debates over whether the U.S. should operate secret prisons and torture suspected terrorists were widening the gap between “Red” and “Blue” sections of the country. Springsteen captures the grimness of the day with “Radio Nowhere,” Magic’s searing leadoff track. As per usual, Bruce is riding in a car, but instead of racing toward redemption, he’s “spinning around a dead dial,” feeling more lost with each mile.
“Radio Nowhere” is about complacency and discontent and their corrosive effects on the culture at large. When Springsteen calls himself “another lost number in a file,” he links Bush-era politics to the lifeless pop he’s hearing over the airwaves in a way that makes perfect sense. Similarly, on “Your Own Worst Enemy,” his line about “fingerprints on file” makes the song’s implied subject matter, marital infidelity, feel like shorthand for a country betraying its principles.
“Radio Nowhere” features ripping sax from Clarence Clemons, and “Your Own Worst Enemy” courses with Danny Federici’s organ and lush Phil Spector touches. There are similar E Street hallmarks all over Magic, an album Springsteen liked to compare to his 1975 opus Born to Run. "Lately, I've had a little romance with my oldest stuff," he told Rolling Stone around the time of the album’s release. Really, it’s more of a flirtation, as Springsteen and O’Brien give the vintage E Street sound a 21st century reboot.
Magic is loud, compressed, and dense. It never sounds like a group of old friends playing in a room together, and in fact, it wasn’t. The album came together piecemeal, with a core E Street lineup laying down basic tracks on weekends and less essential personnel adding their bits as needed. Bruce even let O’Brien help select the tracks and make decisions when he wasn’t around—a first for this notorious control freak.
To hear Magic as another Born to Run or even a continuation of the E Street saga requires a little suspension of disbelief. Springsteen would call it “faith”—as in, “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night,” that classic line from “Thunder Road.” Much of Bruce’s work has centered on that song’s conception of magic: something wondrous and unexplainable that shakes up your reality and makes life worth living. But the word is also synonymous with “illusion,” and that’s what Magic deals with.
Under the boardwalk bounce of “Livin’ In the Future,” Bruce plays a guy who’s convinced himself that any number of bad things—including the 2004 election—haven’t happened yet. He’s like the sad old man clocking the cuties on the booming Beach Boys homage “Girls In Their Summer Clothes.” On his way to down “Magic Street” (a little on-the-nose, but let it slide), the narrator tells himself, “Things been a little tight, but I know they’re going to turn my way.”
And then there’s the father on “Long Walk Home,” who tells his son what a “beautiful place” their town is. Better still, it’s situated in a country that stands for something. “Your flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone,” Springsteen’s dad character sings. “Who we are, what we'll do, and what we won't.” It’s a callback to the Born In the U.S.A. song “My Hometown,” where a middle-aged guy who’s seen his little burg blown apart by racial violence and economic decline tells his son, “Take a good look around.”
Bruce gives essentially that same advice on “Magic.” He’s said the fourth verse, where the imagery changes from card tricks and rabbits in hats to bodies hanging in trees, is the “heart” of the entire album. Over spooky keyboards and foreboding mandolins reminiscent of 1982’s “Atlantic City,” Springsteen explains how politicians use misdirection and sleight-of-hand to shape people’s perceptions of the world and justify all sorts of misdeeds.
As a guy who’s spent much of his adult life telling stories to stadiums full of true believers, Springsteen knows how the trick works. That’s part of why Magic is such a strong album. It also explains why this lefty crusader continues to draw fans from both sides of the aisle. However malicious the magicians get, he never comes down on those who get fooled.