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Review: Magic by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen is one of those figures so central to American mass cultural experience that his "iconic" status as rust-belt troubadour and cause-concerned-zeitgeist-king (AIDS, 9/11) obscures how good an artist he can be. Celebrity is often the sand thrown in the face of aesthetic appreciation.

So it is that yet another album from "The Boss" could be - and was in some British quarters - greeted with a shrug of Limey indifference (not just French waiters can shrug). So what, The Killers sound like this, was the refrain. Well, they wanted to, and their coe-turling attempts made some good songs, but many muddy, emotionally-sprawling bad ones. Magic comes then, as an unexpected, even unheralded, triumph (though in America, it is being called his best work in decades - perhaps since the early 80s).

From my perspective, it is his finest work since Born In The USA, and at times as eerily potent as Nebraska (one of the major albums of all time). In some ways, those two albums are the points he here oscillates between (not that they were an Alpha and Omega of themes). The underlying subject matter of all the songs on Magic is seething rage, terrible loss, and almost-total impotence, related from the perspective of the common man (a 21st century Tom Joad) who finds himself living in a "town" where his "own worst enemy" is suddenly in charge. The enemy is the proto-fascist neo-conservatism of Bush & Co., and the town is America. Like all good American liberals, Springsteen holds in his heart two warring beliefs - that America, as originally conceived, is ultimately good (in a Jeffersonian / Platonic City On A Hill kind of way) and, as it has been sold out, consecutively, ever since, by lying, cheating politicos and company men, is now in the hands of the very bad, who have somehow stolen its promise from the hapless suckers and huckstered saps of its bottom rungs.

This is an Edenic fantasy, of course, and one, ironically, shared by Bush & Co. - with one exception - in their case, the American Exceptionalism never waned and was not tarnished by brassy business dealings and warlike behaviour. At any rate, Magic is exceptionally poignant, as time and again, veterans back (dead or alive) from Iraq face a diminished present, glimpsing fragments of the hell that was the war, but also the beauty that is small-town America ("the girls in their summer clothes"). The title song, especially, is astonishing for how it manages to sound like George Walker Bush himself is murmuring threats to some magic-show assistant ("I'll cut you in half") that might as well be Osama, or the American people.

But other songs are just as effective - Gypsy Biker especially, with the vocals eerily wizened by Marlboros and sandstorms. There are raucous, joyous moments of such Americana, too, that one is put in mind of The Beach Boys, or Dylan. It's hard to represent both sides of a coin, one glittering with promise, one tarnished with promises broken - but that's the trick Springsteen manages on this great album.
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