There are a few ways you can be both a political artist and a rock-star, and Bruce Springsteen has been trying them out for almost four decades now. You can write songs that adopt and/or explore the perspectives of people without power. You can offer moral and financial support to progressive causes, mostly low-key and local. You can go on the stump nationally for a presidential candidate. You can trawl the folk tradition and try to revive interest in some of its more radical manifestations–and while you’re at it you can take an archival curiosity like ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?’ and reshape it into a great and bitter song about New Orleans and Katrina.
Springsteen hasn’t so far taken the Neil Young approach–release an evidently heartfelt but often risible collection of agitprop songs in the apparent hope they’ll become the soundtrack for a (nonexistent) mass movement. (That was Young last year; this year is sure to be different.) And because Springsteen again avoids that tack on his new album, Magic, there has been a murmur afoot, since the album leaked on the internet in early September, that Bruce has (in the words of New York magazine’s Vulture blog) "gotten the politics out of his system."
Politics for Springsteen is not, however, some infection to be purged, but apparently a part of his intrinsic make-up. Despite only a song or two that can remotely be said to be ‘about’ particular issues, and despite the absence of the lovingly detailed wretched-of-the-earth who occupied The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust, Magic is a devastatingly political record, if not always in the predictable ways. It is, for one thing, permeated with war, foreign and domestic, present and past. If this artist has spent two decades wandering the highways and byways of America in search of sounds and stories and themes, on Magic Bruce Springsteen comes home, to New Jersey (no more drawl), to rock & roll (the E Street Band denser than on any record since Born to Run), to the Sixties (for what is more homely than our memories of the period of our own youth?). And home–the home-front, if you like–turns out to be apparently comforting but also fraught, a place of lying, cheating, misunderstanding, and clinging on for dear life.
Partly this is about the sound: with the help of Brendan O’Brien’s almost monaural production, we hear bits of Sixties pop, including a big dose of Beach Boys that should help us place the slightly bitter sweetness of ‘Girls in Their Summer Clothes’ firmly in the narrator’s distant past: the song’s portrait of a buzzing small town makes it a companion piece to ‘Long Walk Home’, where we hear about the same place in countrified 21st-century alienation mode. (In ‘Girls’, a waitress brings coffee and says "Penny for your thoughts"; in ‘Long Walk Home’, the diner is "shuttered and boarded with a sign that just said ‘gone’.")
But the album’s sounds are also of the present day, including echoes of the acts who in turn owe so much to Springsteen: Arcade Fire, the Killers, Lucinda Williams. Even the resonant orchestral sound of Irish-ironist band The Divine Comedy is audible on a couple of tracks. Those who insist on caricaturing him as a musical conservative should at least note how Springsteen’s last project started with a tribute to Pete Seeger and ended up sounding like the Pogues.
On first listen, especially to the lyrics of ‘Long Walk Home’, there is more than a faint whiff of nostalgia here, political and otherwise:
My father said "Son, we’re lucky in this town,
It’s a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone
"The flag flyin’ over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are and what we’ll do and what we won’t"
But sniff again. The nostalgia for the golden community of a past generation that seems to permeate ‘Long Walk Home’ and that is implied in much of ‘Girls in Their Summer Clothes’ is undercut sharply by ‘Gypsy Biker’, which precedes ‘Girls’ on the album. ‘Gypsy Biker’ is a lament for a friend killed in war, and there’s no reason to say it isn’t in Iraq–the friend has been sent "over the hill" with the cry "victory for the righteous", and the benefit going to "profiteers" and speculators"–but the wailing rock guitars, and the emotion in Springsteen’s wailing voice, reach back 35 years or more. The biker culture that is invoked as the dead man’s friends "pulled your cycle up out of the garage and polished up the chrome" (itself a line echoing from an Eighties Springsteen song about a Vietnam vet, ‘Shut Out the Light’) then burn it in the desert is emblematic of the Vietnam era, though that culture persists to this day. The evocation of domestic turmoil about the war ("This whole town’s been rousted / Which side are you on?") is, unfortunately, more redolent of 1970 than 2007.
Even the idea of Springsteen writing about a Gypsy Biker after decades in which his white working-class characters have mostly been rather blander, bleached into some version of universality, is something of a throwback to the early Seventies.
In short, the beloved Gypsy Biker may have been killed in Vietnam, or in Iraq. Being a fictional character, indeed, he may have died in both wars. Either way, "To them that threw you away, you ain’t nothing but gone."
To Springsteen, product of the Sixties, the personal is political. The album starts with a sort of animating first track, ‘Radio Nowhere’, a largely successful attempt at a kick-ass declaration of life-in-the-old-guy-yet, as the narrator, "trying to find my way home", rocks through a familiar Springsteen lexicon of location and desperation in search of human and musical connection. It’s not hard to hear "Is there anybody alive out there?" as a plaintive cry about Life During Bushtime. Then the next three tracks are apparently ‘relationship’ songs that might not be out of place on 1987’s marriage-on-the-rocks album, Tunnel of Love. Given that the present Mrs Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, has just released Play It as It Lays, a fine album of often cuttingly intimate new songs that must have Bruce blushing and squirming even more than other long-lasting husbands who happen to hear it, it’s tempting to listen to these songs for his side of the story.
But unlike on Tunnel of Love, he keeps inserting lyrics that indicate wider significance. ‘You’ll Be Comin’ Down’ and ‘Your Own Worst Enemy’ are titles it’s easy enough to politicize, and the words oblige. The self-loathing you-cum-I of the latter song is uncertain of his social identity, his place in the world. "The times they got too clear / So you removed all the mirrors Your flag it flew so high / It drifted into the sky." The protagonist of these songs could easily be the United States of America–this sequence almost ends up sounding like a joke about the intense identification between Springsteen and his country that has trailed him since ‘Born in the USA’.
He has most fun with this murky idea on ‘Livin’ in the Future’. (It’s true, Springsteen has rarely meet a letter-G he couldn’t drop.) A pop-rocking tune in ‘Hungry Heart’ mode, and again ostensibly about a troubled relationship, its chorus is a paradox and an instant classic in the annals of false comfort:
Don’t worry, darlin’
No baby don’t you fret
We’re livin’ in the future and
None of this has happened yet
If only. The second verse reminds us that Springsteen, as John Kerry’s musical mascot, had a peculiar stake in the last presidential poll. The narrator wakes on election day, whistles the time away
Then just about sun down
You come walkin’ through town
Your boot heels clickin’ like
The barrel of a pistol spinnin’ round
I wonder who that could be? Yet on an Internet message board for Springsteen fans, a contributor get roasted for suggesting this song is political. Sadly, or perhaps magically, once the E Street Band starts touring next week, there will be arenas full of people bopping to this song as though its chorus could somehow be literally true.
By its end ‘Livin’ in the Future’ is at least in part a self-parodying memoir of Springsteen’s failed electoral venture:
I opened up my heart to you
It got all damaged and undone
My ship Liberty sailed away
On a bloody red horizon
The groundskeeper opened the gates
And let the wild dogs run
My faith’s been torn asunder
Tell me is that rollin’ thunder
Or just the sinkin’ sound
Of somethin’ righteous goin’ under
‘Righteous’ is a word that crops up more than once on Magic–though not as often as the keynote, ‘home’–and while the charge of righteousness sometimes seems to refer to the American political posture, one senses that Springsteen is also pointing the finger at himself.
The John Kerry relationship re-appears, as does the Vietnam connection, in more obvious form in ‘Last to Die’, the album’s clearest polemical song ‘about’ Iraq and the first in a three-song suite that closes the album with deadly serious State-of-the-Union intent, albeit with continuing vibrations of personal politics. ‘Last to Die’ is a sketch, drawn from inside the traditional Springsteenian bubble of a car driving away from something (and toward "Truth or Consequences") on some American road–a sketch of the home-front’s alienation from the terrible reality of war and of the rending of the social fabric. ("Things fall apart," he sings, inviting us to fill in the rest of Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’, which funnily enough was also a feature of the final episodes of The Sopranos. It’s a Jersey thing.) From the car radio comes a voice, "some other voice from long ago," and the chorus that follows is lifted, loosely, from John Kerry’s brilliant 1971 testimony to the Senate foreign-relations committee:
Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake
The last to die for a mistake
Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break
Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake
(At least the narrator is not listening to Radio Nowhere; more like WBAI.)
Except that he tells us Kerry’s voice is from "long ago", ‘Last to Die’ is another song that could be set a generation ago. As it is, however, the chorus needs to be sung today precisely because Kerry and his ilk now lack of the courage of their earlier convictions. "We don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn any more," Springsteen sings. "We just stack the bodies outside the door." As the guitars drop away momentarily, from the car there is a glimpse of reality, perhaps a news promo seen in the window of a TV shop:
A downtown window flushed with light
"Faces of the dead at five"
A martyr’s silent eyes
Petition the drivers as we pass by
The song concludes in full rock & roll roar with a vision of "tyrants and kings strung up at your city gates," so maybe Bruce won’t be going the electoral route in 2008.
It isn’t the only vision on this album, which has more elements of prophecy than propaganda. Even the ‘love song’, ‘I’ll Work for Your Love’, is an ode to a bar-waitress written as a half-jokey exercise in extended religious metaphor:
Pour me a drink, Teresa, in one of those glasses you dust off
And I’ll watch the bones in your back like the Stations of the Cross
The last song, ‘Devil’s Arcade’, is the among the album’s most literal: a lover recalls portentious, and passionate, youthful episodes with a man, then tells the story of than man enlisting, being wounded, probably by an IED ("Just metal and plastic where your body caved"), being hospitalised and returning home to fragile life, "the beat of your heart" repeatedly seven spine-tingling times over a slow rhythm. But there are meanings that are harder, in every sense: the Devil’s Arcade could be the war, but Springsteen also uses the phrase as he describes the characters’ first sexual experiences. This is no simple and simplistic exercise in painting devil’s horns on George W. Bush.
Springsteen has rarely been so difficult. At its most challenging, Magic is an attack on American cruelty and pretensions, on the indifference of its political class; but it is also a continuation of the occasional auto-critique that in the last two decades has seen him write scathingly about "a rich man in a poor man’s shirt" (‘Better Days’) or admit that "The highway is alive tonight / But nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes" (‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’). The name of the album, Magic, draws attention to his self-referential intent: no words in the Springsteen Canon are more beloved than the audience sing-along line from ‘Thunder Road’: "Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night … " But here, magic is something entirely more sinister.
The slow title track is sung from the perspective of a conjuror who runs the listener through his ominous bag of tricks, including his capacity to escape the "shackles on my wrists" that are probably the most potent global symbol of today’s USA. "Trust none of what you hear / And less of what you see," he then sings, and the political meaning for media consumers is clear enough. But with the song’s passing references to a river and a rising, you also sense something of a personal confession. That Magic publicity shot of 58-year-old Springsteen with a biologically unlikely full head of thick dark hair, wearing tough-guy chains and clutching the old Telecaster, its famed wood veneer cracked with age–is that just another untrustworthy image from the Magician’s PR department?
On an album of screaming guitars, crying sax and mourning organ, one that often feels haunted by perdition, at best, and apocalypse, at worst, the song ‘Magic’ takes the most directly prophetic form, every verse ending with "This is what will be." And, as always, prophecy is not about the future. Springsteen reads America’s past, the ‘strange fruit’ of racist lynchings echoed in the disaster of Katrina, the spectre of domestic refugees in the shadow of the political uses of terror, and emerges with a vision of hell:
Now there’s a fire down below
But it’s coming up here
So leave everything you know
Carry only what you fear
On the road the sun is sinkin’ low
There’s bodies hangin’ in the trees
This is what will be
This is what will be
Magic by Bruce Springsteen is officially scheduled for release on vinyl in the US on September 25th and on CD October 2nd. It is on sale in Europe and elsewhere later this week.
HARRY BROWNE lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine. Email firstname.lastname@example.org