My old buddy Ann Powers does an excellent job getting to the bottom of Bruce's new album:
There comes a point in most believers' lives where faith transforms from an inevitability to a choice. Something alters life's usual patterns -- a personal tragedy, perhaps, or an intellectual realization -- and what seemed so true suddenly can't be trusted. This isn't true just for God-fearing people; any creed is vulnerable to such a crisis. Getting past it can feel like an accomplishment or a sneaking betrayal, depending on whether you genuinely renew your convictions or just decide that credulity is the best way to survive.
Few artists must feel the obligation to keep the faith as heavily as Bruce Springsteen. For nearly 40 years, he's relentlessly returned to one great subject: that moment when an ordinary person confronts some higher power, whether it's love or death or the state patrol, and makes an ennobling if sometimes fatally wrongheaded commitment to act.
Springsteen's fascination with these personal epiphanies has earned him a massive cult, and why not? His lyrics blend religious and secular scenarios to describe the various apocalypses his fans might encounter in their own lives. Rife with Catholic imagery but attached to the kind of rousing rock that follows directly from American revivalist and black church traditions, Springsteen turns his tales into rituals. Each hearing allows the committed fan to renew her devotion, not just to the Boss, but to her own path.
What happens, though, when the prophet begins to wonder if it's all a hollow game? That's when choice comes in. On "Magic," Springsteen's 16th studio album and the latest to reunite him with the E Street Band -- his gospel choir -- he recommits fully to the uplifting oomph of his rock 'n' roll formula. But a sadder and wiser willfulness permeates these 12 tracks. It's present in the music, which removes all gunk from the formulas Springsteen's been using forever and gets them shining. And it's deeply embedded in lyrics that examine what happens after illusions are shattered, and life just goes on....
"Magic" unfolds beyond any reference point besides Springsteen's own body of work -- which makes sense, since it's a ritual object, with every song designed to fit into the arena shows where devotees will soon commune....
It's the way Springsteen injects his American bible stories with the air of disbelief that makes "Magic" a truly mature and memorable album. He knows his fans need that rush, that jump outside their own feelings of disappointment and limitation, that he's given them for so long. Yet more and more, he seems to realize that disappointment and limitation are his métier, and that sometimes a giant saxophone fill and a chorus about hungry hearts can't solve the problem. "Magic" bares its own devices beautifully, providing a kind of transcendence that allows for listeners to keep their feet on the ground. Believe in it, if you choose.
The main thing I've noticed about people's reaction to Magic is that whether they like it or not, they feel obliged to note that it sounds like a return to Bruce's past. The best critics, though, go one step further ... they ask why Bruce would take such a step, analyze the move beyond a simple "it's like 1980." Ann gets it just right, as usual.