I suppose there are more furious album-opening salvos that “Radio Nowhere”— Sleater-Kinney’s “Call the Doctor”, the Clash’s “London Calling,” Public Enemy’s “You’re Gonna Get Yours,” or Fugazi’s “Facet Squared”—but the song’s in good company. Sure, its guitar line recalls Tommy Tutone’s great “867-5309,” but Bruce Springsteen’s intent is far less whimsical, his lyrical tone more isolated and melancholy. “I was trying to find my way home/ But all I heard was a drone/ Bouncing off a satellite/ Crushing the last lone American night.” Indeed, the three guitars bleed into a singular, swallowing sound.
The song—well, almost all the songs here—are about trying to find connections with other people, about the desire and need for human touch, for the sound of another person’s voice. Mostly, the search ends in failure; occasionally, Springsteen gives us equivocal success. Here, and throughout the rest of Magic, Springsteen’s voice is fighting to be heard over the music, over the production that sounds murkier and more frayed than he’s ever let the E Street Band sound before. The guitars slur and muddy the water; even Clarence Clemons’s normally clear-ringing saxophone is brash, roughly recorded, as though its sound is unable to match the clarity of its message.
In his 1970s and 1980s concerts, Springsteen’s battle cry to the crowd between songs was “Is there anybody really alive out there?!” Two decades ago, it was a yell of solidarity; the audience responded with a roar. In “Radio Nowhere,” however, Springsteen’s voice is weary, trying hard not to be desolate as he decries that he’s “spinning around a dead dial/ Just another lost number in a file.” As his narrator succinctly describes his isolation and desperate search for anything approaching communion, Springsteen’s voice is buried by sound. “I just want to hear some rhythm,” chanted over and over again, becomes increasingly ferocious, but also pathetic. He knows he’s being drowned out.
“Radio Nowhere” encapsulates Magic’s strengths and weaknesses in under three-and-a-half minutes. On the album’s twelve songs, Springsteen’s lyrical genius is evident everywhere—that blend of redemption and damnation; the concrete and precise images; the tremendous emotional range and perspectives; the vitality of a single soul ever in conflict with societal forces that s/he can’t comprehend, much less control; the seemingly simple choruses that shift meaning with each new verse. As a singer, he’s more confident than ever. He sells “Livin’ in the Future” with just the swing of his voice—you could dirty-dance to it even without the sleazy/brilliant riffs and roughhouse heavy beats—and that tripping vocal delivery belies its political potency. (Oh, come on: “My faith’s been torn asunder/ tell me is that rolling thunder/ Or just the sinking sound/ of something righteous going under?” That ain’t just about a man singing about a romantic relationship falling apart.) “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” gets into a lonely heart’s mind, his halting attempts to get some loving, but Springsteen’s words and delivery give an autopsy—of which the narrator’s only partly aware—of the idealization and mythologizing that’ll make his connections impossible to achieve.
In Magic’s first half, each time we turn that dial to a new song, we’re turning to a new narrator, a new voice (in “Livin’ in the Future,” Springsteen’s tone is noticeably higher, almost falsetto, than on the rest of the album), a new situation. Most importantly, we’re hitting a new sound. My friend Brünhilde, bless her, hasn’t given up on the power of radio. What I think she loves is radio’s ability to surprise us, to introduce us to something new without our permission, and then its ability to mix that with something similar but unheard in awhile.
Most significantly, there’s a new sound. In the pre-formatted days of AM radio, you could expect to hear the soul strut of the Supremes next to Stevie Wonder in proto-funk form, next to the Byrds’ country-rock, next to the Beatles, next to Springsteen’s own throaty fusion of R&B, gospel, and prog-rock. Springsteen’s perhaps not a great musical innovator, but his compositional genius (there’s that word again but, after nearly four decades of music this good, there’s no other appropriate word. Deal with it) is as a synthesizer. He brings together disparate pop sounds, from traditions black and white, and fuses them together into a form all his own.
So, for six songs, Springsteen rewards Brünhilde’s righteous hope. “Radio Nowhere’s” grunge differs substantially from the crisp pop rock of the next, “You’ll Be Comin’ Down,” though they’re unified by guitars that both bleed into the mix and are distinct. (This is true of the E Street Band’s production as a whole.) “Livin’ in the Future’s” scuzz-funk feels like nothing that came before it, and the chamber pop of “Your Own Worst Enemy,” complete with string-quartet surge and ringing piano, doesn’t sound like what comes before it. Hell, nothing on Magic sounds like, or is as fantastic as, “Gypsy Biker.” “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” has a nostalgic jump-back to Springsteen’s own songwriting history—with the specificity of locale and a bit of the goodbye-to-all-that of “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” a song from 1973!—and ambitious musical structures.
The second half, though, feels as unfocused as the narrator of “Radio Nowhere.” The lyrics of “I’ll Work for Your Love,” “Last to Die,” and “Long Walk Home” are terrific, but the sound is generic. It’s not quite soul, not quite rock, not quite chamber-pop, not quite gospel. All of which is fine, but none of it is quite specific to Springsteen, either. The musicianship is competent, in the same way that Matchbox 20 is competent. “Magic” yearns for the folk significance and odd echoes of “Streets of Philadelphia” or The Rising’s “Nowhere Man” and “You’re Missing,” but isn’t distinct enough to make an impression. It’s the worst aspects of Devils & Dust in one song, without the compensation of meaningful lyrics.
The album doesn’t find its footing again until the closing “Devil’s Arcade.” A song’s ability to make you cry is not a perfect measure of a song’s strength, but it’s not a bad one to go by. (The first time I heard “Devil’s Arcade,” I couldn’t stop weeping.) This song serves as a perfect coda for an album of lost souls and missed connections. Its sinuous cello cuts into, and makes real, the lyrics that crack into the skin like a whip. Throughout Magic, we’ve heard lines about people who’ve gone off to serve their country and returned home in body bags. We’ve listened to shell-shocked survivors of war and battles of love as they try to endure the terrors of life. We’ve heard them trying not to be consumed by dread, by static and noise and slurring sound that overwhelms them. The ambient drones reflect our free-floating anxieties in the face of mourning, which Springsteen and company capture in sound. Better yet, Springsteen’s lyrics convey, in detail, a specific man and the effect his death has on those around him. The words that his lover remembers—“You said heroes are needed, so heroes get made/ Somebody made a bet, somebody paid”—as she tries to memorialize him feel specific to this man, but he’s universal enough that we’ve all known someone like him.
“Devil’s Arcade” is the flipside to “Gypsy Biker.” Both deal with the loss of veterans, from the points-of-view of those left behind. The latter is even more expansive—in “Gypsy Biker,” Springsteen switches from narrator to narrator, giving brief portraits of how various people (a lover, a mother, a brother, a friend) deal with the loss. It’s a group snapshot of loss. It ends with the marvelously despondent image of someone “counting white lines/ Counting white lines and getting stoned” because the gypsy biker’s coming home… to his grave. “Devil’s Arcade” offers a memorial that remembers “the beat of your heart,” and that dares to move on from loss to acceptance and a sort of freedom. The sound, ironically, is more mournful (that cello brings us low) than the soaring, angry, drum-filled “Gypsy Biker.” Again, that’s Springsteen tweaking with our expected emotions. As a coda to the coda, the all-acoustic “Terry’s Song” gets to the nitty-gritty and devotes itself to Springsteen’s recently deceased friend Terry Magovern. It captures the Nebraska-era folk that “Magic” aspires to achieve.
But “Devil’s Arcade” ends the album proper, and finishes it on a note of sonic hope/futility—a martial, cracking drumbeat, above and isolated from the din. (The din dies away gradually.) It proclaims the individual but, god, it sounds lonely. It’s a thunderclap of fury and hope. As with all thunderclaps, though, it’s at once loud, a little unfocused, and over much too soon.
Related reading: I wrote about Devils & Dust here, and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions here.