We need Magic, perhaps even as much as Bruce Springsteen himself. Since reuniting with his E Street Band on 2002’s The Rising—a sad but ultimately hopeful exploration of the September 11 attacks—Springsteen has divided his time between stark, bare recordings like Devils and Dust (very much in the mode of his 1982 masterpiece Nebraska) and diving into Pete Seeger’s musical catalog of protest folk on We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. The Rising was Springsteen’s first album of all-new material since The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), and it contained some stunning work, including loud, punchy anthems sustained by lyrics that swayed between despair and hope. Magic is a return of sorts to the form he introduced in The Rising, but it’s not a sequel or an unoriginal retreat to what he’s already done. Magic is an infectious, rousing album of wonderful new songs, effectively uniting the political and the personal, the hopeful and the nostalgic.
“Radio Nowhere,” the album’s first single, is a reflection on loneliness and nostalgia told through one person’s plea for “a thousand guitars” and “pounding drums” until it finally arrives at the poignant longing underlying the entire song: “I was driving through the misty rain/ ...Trying to make a connection with you.” If there is a prevailing theme throughout much of the album, then it is Springsteen’s efforts to confront loss and disillusionment, topics of exploration as one grows older and mortality becomes a more pressing issue. Songs like “A Long Walk Home,” with its evocation of loss, death, and change, and “The Devil’s Arcade” (presumably a metaphor for war) about a soldier’s death in “cool desert” with “nothing to save” reveal an artist grappling with the complexity and inevitability of aging.
What makes the album successful is Springsteen’s insistence on crafting well-made melodies and powerful rock hooks. It is deceptive, because the appeal of the music draws you into the stories and issues you don’t expect to hear or even want to examine. But then again, that’s always been Springsteen’s style. Since “Born in the U.S.A.”—one of the most popular songs of the 1980s—was proposed as Reagan’s campaign song despite its criticism of a government neglectful of its soldiers, Springsteen has known that the secret to engaging an audience with painful experiences and probing issues is to situate lyrics on a catchy melody and powerful rock hooks. Because of this strength, Magic is an admirable achievement.