By Mark Guarino
Mary, Bobby, Theresa and other protagonists you grew up following in Bruce Springsteen’s legion of albums enter the stage one more time on “Magic” (Columbia), his first album with the E Street Band in five years, released today. They’re doing what Springsteen characters are supposed to do: hitting the highway on motorcycles, readying themselves to burn up the boardwalk on a Saturday night, checking out the shuttered storefronts in their hometown.
Yet “Magic” feels less of a conscious brand revival that was “The Rising” in 2002. Unlike that album, the E Street Band — one of the most reliable, personality-driven backup groups in rock history — is not summoned to re-launch a winning formula, resulting in half-pint versions of songs bettered by their original versions. The 11 songs (and one hidden track) of “Magic” are more resolute, standing on their own terms. Springsteen visits familiar territory without making the journey so obvious. Now 34 years into a heavily tracked career, it would be an amazing accomplishment if just one of these songs became worthy contributors to his songbook. Instead, Springsteen, 57, goes further and has made an entire album’s worth.
Consider the feat: The nice but ultimately forgettable detours since 1987’s “Tunnel of Love” (Columbia) helped downsize Springsteen’s super-sized stature as a major songwriter. Although he continued to excel as a remarkable live performer, his song output lightened, with new albums feeling more like decisions made in his management office than in his writing studio. There were songs worthy for hyper-passionate legion to adore, but none of them had the lasting power of previous chapters, when the mythology masked songs to back it up.
“Magic” works its magic by shedding the burden of being Bruce Springsteen. Like milestones “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” the band is there just to deliver grace and heft, nothing more. With his vocals cloaked in reverb and his bandleader tendencies kept in check, Springsteen sounds more singularly invested in his song’s dark edges more than their metaphorical ticks.
Pop hooks spill through this album, from the first song to the last. Just in time for his current tour, Springsteen will arrive with heart-pumping rockers (“Last to Die,” “Radio Nowhere,” “Livin’ in the Future”) to finally stand beside, or even overcome, the venerated hits. Individual E Streeters never cue up for their moment in the spotlight; they blend together as a band that, for the first time since “Darkness,” swoons with cinematic drama.
Springsteen artfully drapes his lyrics with religiosity. “Now our city of peace has crumbled, our book of faith’s been tossed/And I’m just down here searchin’ for my own piece of the cross,” he sings. Last election season, Springsteen swung his reflections with a hammer. This time out, the conflict is messier, less assured, which is richer soil that makes these songs thrive.