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The Major Lift

 

By Erik Hage

‘Is there anybody alive out there?/I just want to feel some rhythm. . . . I want a thousand guitars/I want pounding drums,” barks Bruce Springsteen through clenched teeth over the clockwatch caterwaul of the E Street Band in “Radio Nowhere,” the opening track and first single of Magic.

The sentiment is at once wish and wish-fulfillment, as the corrugated blast of guitar snarl bolsters one of Springsteen’s most powerful songs in years—and introduces one of the best albums of his career.

That’s a tall order for such a mythic persona. While Talmudic scholars stroke their beards interpreting Bob Dylan’s every inscrutable move—and while Dylan himself pulls away, blowing up and undermining old “selves” and often producing work that is fractured, prismatic, and difficult—Springsteen takes a more direct (and perhaps more difficult) path, heading straight into the hard winds of public perception and living in the same old skin as “Broooce.” There’s an argument for the greatness of Dylan’s most recent work, but it’s an intellectual and artistic argument. The argument for the greatness of Magic is direct and musical (i.e. you ain’t gotta explain it).

And so much comes spilling out of Bruce this time around that one can’t help but think he’s been holding out on us. There’s the Brill Building bop of “Livin’ in the Future,” which reimagines “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” as a more limber, ass-shaking strut; there’s the wistful, sepia landscape of “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” the most “pop” song Springsteen has produced in years, with its expansive, Phil Spector-like grandiosity; and then there’s the antiwar track “Last to Die,” which is scathing and searing and presents yet another argument for the power of Springsteen’s directness and immediacy.

And when the opening piano twinkles of “I’ll Work for Your Love” explode into a bright full-band roar and Bruce playfully incants “Pour me a drink, Theresa, in one of those glasses you dust off,” it’s an act of artistic self-reference and a promise that it’s going to be one of those songs, like the ones that past femme muses Rosalita or Crazy Janey inhabit.

I stand by my old argument that many of those who dismiss Springsteen do so for the wrong reasons. Stare long enough into his canon and a thorny and complex artist emerges—but one that tethers deceiving complexity to the joyful and simple lessons of ’50s and ’60s rock & roll, and couches his artistic autonomy in the we’re-in-it-together gang mentality of the E Street Band.

At any rate, Magic is one of the richest listening experiences I’ve had in a while; thematically and musically it yields so much that even the greatest Springsteen detractors or nonlisteners could use this as a starting point. And no other artist of his magnitude could say that this late in the game. Even Rolling Stone got it right: Pin five stars on a classic, turn it up and drift away on the songs.

Predictably, Kid Rock is on a whole different trip than Springsteen, claiming “I don’t want to be your friend/I want to fuck you like I’m never gonna see you again” amid the throes of “So Hott.” Rock has done some interesting reinvention to stay on our collective cultural radar, evolving from rap-rock ironist to someone who just wants to create good-time, work-hard, love-hard platitudes in the vein of Bob Seger and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But he’s still got that potty mouth, even if Pamela wasn’t his for the keeping. And the raunchy hard rock of “So Hott” is a whole lot more fun than the earnest Southern-funk, pseudo-gospel bop of “All Summer Long” or such sanctimonious, lighter-raising dreck as “Amen.” But there’s not much here on Rock N’ Roll Jesus that illuminates beyond the small halo of light created by that one lighter.

If there’s an insight we can glean in this post-American Idol world, it’s that Jennifer Lopez actually made some damn good R&B songs around the turn of the millennium. By comparison, Brave seems quaint and obvious. Maybe it’s hard to work oneself up into a lather over a little pop album after flirting with the A-list of Hollywood, but from the teary, sentimental hogwash of the title track to the faux-disco flourishes of “Hold It, Don’t Drop It,” this all seems a bit lightweight and ill-conceived.

Long before emo exploded in several different directions, a few of them unsavory, Jimmy Eat World made music that really had more of a clear and ecstatic power-pop lineage. Chase This Light comes six years after their breakout album, Bleed American (the subtler, darker, but not-as-strong Futures came out in 2004), and while it has bright moments, it possesses none of the lightning-in-a-bottle excitement they could once generate with songs such as “The Middle.”

“Dizzy” has a lot of earnest Goo Goo Dolls-like, anthemic flourishes, and it might be a hit if it appears in romantic movie or is pitted against a teen plot on the WB. “Big Casino” tests out the kind of synth washes that define popular alt-rock these days, and “Carry You” sounds like it’s straight out of the Matchbox 20 catalogue. It seems to these ears that the group, once considered a new and driving force in the emocore stirrings of the mid-’90s, are testing all obvious routes in search of some of that Rob Thomas money . . . or at least a mainstream hit to retire on.

 

 

 

 


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