By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007; Page C01
Meet the new Boss, same as the old Tommy Tutone.
Seriously: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's deceivingly dark (but eminently listenable) new album, "Magic," opens with "Radio Nowhere," a glossy, chugging rocker that shares a chord progression with Tommy Tutone's long-ago smash, "867-5309/Jenny." Or is it Warren Zevon's similar-sounding "Splendid Isolation"?
Carrying a tune: The Boss rejoins his E Street Band on their first album together since 2002. (By Richard Drew -- Associated Press)
Either way, it makes for a startling opening salvo -- and not because one doesn't figure Springsteen for a Tommy Tutone fan. "Radio Nowhere" happens to be the most melodically sticky tune we've heard from the Boss in years. It also rocks relatively hard, powered by Max Weinberg's crashing drums and a ringing triple-guitar attack.
The lyrics may be somewhat suspect, with Springsteen noting that his drive "through the misty rain" is part of his search for "a mystery train" -- words that could have been produced by a random-Springsteen-lyric generator, or maybe Brandon Flowers of the Killers. But "Radio Nowhere" still works musically.
It's no outlier: "Radio Nowhere" is the perfect stage-setter for Springsteen's most musically accessible album since "Born in the U.S.A." became a bestseller (and seller . . . and seller) 23 years ago. Full of strong melodies, sharp hooks and the sort of muscular, fluid playing one expects on a collaboration between Springsteen and his longtime band, "Magic" marks a stark change from Springsteen's recent output -- from 2002's somber post-9/11 salve, "The Rising," and 2005's monochromatic "Devils & Dust," to last year's old-time folk hootenanny, "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions."
That "Magic" isn't the most original of all Springsteen albums may not matter. Springsteen recycling Springsteen (among others) is still a pretty fair formula, even if it means references to courthouse flags, neon lights and fatherly advice, along with some vintage Springsteen sounds. "Livin' in the Future," for instance, brings to mind the classic "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," what with Clarence Clemons's blaring saxophone, Garry Tallent's swaggering bass line and Danny Federici's organ breaks. "I'll Work for Your Love" opens with Roy Bittan's familiar twinkling piano and nothing but before turning into an updated take on Springsteen's "For You," set to a melody that faintly echoes Billy Joel's "Piano Man."
"Magic" is not an overtly blue-state album, though it has its moments -- most notably "Last to Die," which rocks with a particular focus and fury as Springsteen turns an angry eye to the Bush administration and sings: "The wise men were all fools." In the song, Springsteen resurrects John Kerry's Vietnam-era congressional testimony, repeatedly asking: "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?"
There's also "Devil's Arcade," a vague lament from a soldier's lover who loses her man to the military. "You said heroes are needed, so heroes get made," Springsteen sings. "Somebody made a bet, somebody paid/The cool desert morning and nothin' to save/Just metal and plastic where your body caved."
While the music on "Magic" tends to sound buoyant, even triumphal, the central figures in the lyrics are isolated, alienated, disconnected and disillusioned. They've been betrayed, deceived, dismissed. There's a riptide of angst tugging at those who occupy Springsteen's Americana. This is not an album for happy people living in happy times. (Curiously, the most uplifting entry is "Terry's Song," a deeply heartfelt tribute to Springsteen's longtime assistant, who died in July.)
"Trust none of what you hear/And less of what you see," Springsteen warns on "Magic's" swaying title track. In "Your Own Worst Enemy," a pop masterstroke rendered in the shimmering, expansive style of Brian Wilson, Springsteen sings: "The times they got too clear/So you removed all the mirrors/Once the family felt secure/Now no one's very sure."
Springsteen, now 58, considers what it means to grow old, and he's not sure that he likes what he sees. "You'll be fine long as your pretty face holds out/Then it's gonna get pretty cold out," he observes in "You'll Be Comin' Down." In the melancholy "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," one of the weakest songs on the album ("Gypsy Biker" is another), Springsteen ruefully observes that said girls now pass him by.
At least we think that's what he's saying.
He's a tricky lyricist who can write with precision, drawing you in with poetic, if often unspecific, details. But the view tends to change as you step back for the long view.
Is "Long Walk Home" about a broken romance -- or a veteran who now feels like an outsider in his own home town? There are even layers to "Radio Nowhere," on which Springsteen sings of drones bouncing off satellites and of spinning around dead dials. "This is Radio Nowhere/Is there anybody alive out there?" he growls. It's unclear whether the song is about the sorry state of commercial radio or the sorry, soulless state of the world at large.
DOWNLOAD THESE: "Terry's Song," "I'll Work for Your Love," "Your Own Worst Enemy," "Last to Die"