The song that defines Bruce Springsteen's Magic most clearly is Your Own Worst Enemy. It doesn't offer hope. But if there isn't hope, there's beauty. As Rock & Rap Confidential's Danny Alexander notes, "In many ways, the Bruce Springsteen story has been a struggle to find the integrated, liberated community suggested by rock & roll."

 

 

The arc of Bruce Springsteen's career is described by the journey from the bursting energy of "Born to Run" to the new album's "Long Walk Home," with its only solace in the line "everybody has a reason to begin again."

Magic also hearkens back to the Spector-like Wall of Sound of Born to Run and is Springsteen's most ornate and accessible album ever, with bold and catchy refrains that vividly convey the heart of each song. But, as with that long walk, this album tends to be reflective, and all that old youthful exuberance has hit a wall of uncertainty.  

The song that defines Magic most clearly is "Your Own Worst Enemy." It doesn't offer hope. But if there isn't hope, there's beauty. Springsteen opened Born to Run by invoking the spirit of Roy Orbison. Magic is the closest he's come to channeling that great singer. Listen to the way "Your Own Worst Enemy" builds, almost one instrument at a time, with an urgency reminiscent of Orbison's "Running Scared," and ends with Springsteen's voice sailing up and away on the last few syllables, just as Orbison did at the end of "In Dreams." Like Orbison, Springsteen seems to be dreaming of victory even as he admits the illusion of it.  

It's a gorgeous melody that begins with a simple piano chord, ringing like a bell. When the vocal comes in, sleigh bells and baroque strings, mostly cello, give the song all the confection of a Christmas record. The irony is that the lyric is a portrait of a criminal lying awake at night, dreams gone, knowing his days of freedom are numbered. Only Springsteen uses the second person, so the criminal isn't just anyone. It's us, his listeners, lying there in that bed, our fingerprints "left clumsily at the scene," as the band kicks in.

The arrangement is as ornate as anything since Pet Sounds, complete with harpsichord and layer upon layer of Springsteen's overdubbed vocals repeating, "Your own worst enemy has come… to town." It's hard to miss the irony. Though he once had a hit record connecting with his audience over the fate of our mutual hometowns, today Springsteen mulls over the fact that we may be, in some way, part of the threat.

"Everything is upside down," he sings recalling a time when we felt some measure of comfort and certainty, but the tambourine and more elaborate musical figures that answer these thoughts seem to mock us.

Springsteen's Magic also grapples with the reality that, almost 40 years down the road, the world is in a darker place than it was when he started. In fact, the country has seemed to grow cynical about its own dreams, and the body count climbs every day.

Then comes the bridge, and Springsteen uses it like Orbison did on "In Dreams," where the singer woke from his dream. Here, he puts us in front of a shop window, reminding us of one he sang about years ago, the one where he saw a picture of himself as a local hero. Now, the person looking back feels like a failure. At this point, it seems most clear that he's including himself in this reckoning. After all, we've followed him on this 30-year ride, and it's brought us sleeplessness and dread.

All four measures of the bridge are punctuated by tympani followed by door chimes, as if someone's knocking at the door. No need to answer. We all know who our own worst enemy always is, and who wants to confront that?  

Instead, the lyrics give way to layers of "ah's" that seek to elevate the moment but wind up sounding like a great sigh. And then the music drops back to the original piano chord, ringing like sleigh bells.

In the last verse, the singer calls us out for hiding from our own reflection, and the lines are answered by funky riffs from Danny Federici's organ. They "amen" the honesty, but they can't erase the truth. The voice that once called for his city in ruins to "rise up" is admitting that "everything is falling down."

In the song's final two lines, Springsteen addresses the American flag, the one he once tried to reclaim for the best of its values with the cover of his biggest selling album, Born in the U.S.A. Though it once "flew so high" it has "drifted into the sky," and Springsteen's voice literally reaches for it - and for the Roy Orbison in him. He doesn't have Orbison's voice, which only makes it more moving when he hits the note, as the flag floats off, leaving us behind. Springsteen set out to make music that symbolized all that was best in that dream, but even that has gotten away from him - especially that.

When he does reach the note, all the instruments draw up like someone's stomped the brakes. The band drops away, leaving only the distant tolling of church bells. It's a moment of naked reckoning. The journey that started looking for a place in the sun has wound up with nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide.

 In many ways, the Bruce Springsteen story has been a struggle to find the integrated, liberated community suggested by rock & roll. At a time when Rock had become a term for white music cut off from its black roots, Springsteen broke onto the charts mixing rock guitar with the sound of black girl group records. He wound up with a nearly all white audience with nostalgia for the black music of its youth.

He wrote songs for black artists including Gary U.S. Bonds and Donna Summer and found himself covered by the Pointer Sisters, and he joined integrated groups to fight hunger, human rights abuse and apartheid, but he never found the cultural synthesis he seemed to be seeking. In fact, when he toured with a mostly black band in 1992, when radio formats and concert audiences were more divided than ever, he found much of his core audience rejected the project.



Meanwhile, despite the fact that his music spoke of compassion and liberation, the country grew colder and more repressive. When the World Trade Center fell, he began building unity around the grief the nation was facing, but by the end of the tour he was raging against war in Iraq.

Once that war came, mocking his career-long effort to make sure - with "Lost in the Flood," with "Born in the U.S.A.," with his cover of Edwin Starr's "War" - we learned something from Vietnam, he made his most desolate album to date, Devils & Dust, and then he toured with a completely different band singing traditional folk songs.

Magic, Springsteen's most musically ambitious record since Born in the USA, shows what inspiration he gained by stepping away. But it also grapples with the reality that, almost 40 years down the road, the world is in a darker place than it was when he started. In fact, the country has seemed to grow cynical about its own dreams, and the body count climbs every day.

At the heart of Magic, "Your Own Worst Enemy" expresses Springsteen's need to reckon with this reality and his role in it. Perhaps most importantly, he's using the second person to ask listeners to do the same kind of reckoning.

The song asks us to think hard at the wall of impasse. Springsteen used to say, "nobody wins unless everybody wins," and it's never been more clear that we can't get past this wall without some real help. His stage can't be the mainstage, and he and his band can't be left alone on it.

"Your own worst enemy has come… to town." At the heart of Magic, Your Own Worst Enemy expresses Springsteen's need to reckon with this reality and his role in it. Perhaps most importantly, he's using the second person to ask listeners to do the same kind of reckoning.

One of the harsh truths of idolatry is that fans tend only to hear their favorite artist. As if there were no other music, no radio, only Bruce Springsteen records and Bruce Springsteen concerts. The dreams of liberation become their own self referential world: a trap. 

Conventional wisdom about the sorry state of today's radio justifies this isolation. And if they do listen, Springsteen's core fan base is directed towards formats that cater to an ageing demographic far removed from today's version of the Crystals - ironic because "Born to Run" is inconceivable without "Da Doo Ron Ron" as inspiration.

But suppose Springsteen's fans found themselves listening to a young black woman like Keisha Cole? On the title track of her latest, "Just Like You," she's staring into a mirror, too, and recognizing she has the same general strengths and weaknesses as her fans. Suppose they heard Rihanna's hit album Good Girl Gone Bad, on which she reckons the cost of her experience, different from Springsteen's but comparable. Or if they paid attention to the words of Alabama rapper Rich Boy, asking himself, on his current hit, "What did you do this for? What difference did you make?" Houston rapper Chamillionaire, on his new album's opener, "The Morning News," itemizes the same dirty tricks that Springsteen alludes to on Magic. What might Springsteen's audience gain by hearing these records in dialogue with "Your Own Worst Enemy"?

To listen to contemporary hip-hop radio is to hear people who've been beat down personally and politically still having the strength to dream big dreams. Keisha Cole shows that vision beautifully in her hit single with Missy Elliott and Lil' Kim, "Let It Go." So does La La, who currently tops the Latin charts with her anthem of unity, "Homegirls." Brooklyn rapper Fabolous and R&B crooner Ne-Yo sing "You Make Me Better." And that's the theme of Arab Floridian DJ Khaled's summer hit record, "We Takin' Over," on which Akon, T.I. (the self-proclaimed King of the South) and New Orleans' Little Wayne call for those most reviled by the system to rise up.

Imagine fans listening to Springsteen's staple favorite, "The Promised Land" back-to-back with that record. Both songs would gain something out of that dialogue - one suggests idealism worth aiming for, while the other has the audacity to believe in the peoples' ability to make it real.  Springsteen's music needs just such a larger context - after all, that's the connection he's sought from the beginning.        

He starts Magic by crying, "Is there anybody alive out there?" And he ends it with a wounded soldier, "adrift with the heroes of the Devil's Arcade." Isn't Springsteen himself, if not the soldier, one of those heroes adrift? Aren't we all?

On Magic, Springsteen's doing what he knows how to do, and doing it as well as he ever has, but he needs help. So do we. Maybe, by listening to Springsteen as a part of a larger dialogue, his fans can begin to find a way to build a real land of hope and dreams. That's what we ought to be thinking about after the music's over, during that long walk home.

Note: Danny Alexander is one of the associate editors of Rock & Rap Confidential, the no-holds-barred music newsletter. Email them at rockrap@aol.com to receive their free newsletter.







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December 21, 2007