The E Street Band last convened around Bruce Springsteen on 2001's The Rising; since then, the Boss (who looks finer as he gets older) has taken a leave of absence from rock 'n' roll to indulge in smaller projects, e.g. last year's Pete Seeger tribute. Both the time away and Bruce's stylistic shift have made this highly anticipated reunion capital-M Major: For the faithful (which includes at least three-fourths of New Jersey), it's nothing short of an answered prayer.
The answer, unfortunately, is Magic, a maddeningly uneven record that often sounds like legends coasting, most apparently on "Living in the Future" and "Last to Die." The latter is Springsteen 101, echoing all those intros with understated strumming and/or tinkling sleigh-bell keyboards, all those quadruple-stacked choruses and slowly ascending, triumphantly screaming guitars. Oh, and there's something about a highway. Bruce, I love youbut unless you're giving directions, no more highways. "Living in the Future," meanwhile, is dragged down by Clarence Clemons's "soulful" sax, which not only sounds dated but gives me a freaking headache. And speaking of headaches, Magic's sound is so compressed and shitty that I seriously thought my speakers were bustedit's impossible sometimes to tell one instrument from another as producer Brendan O'Brien (who managed to not fuck up The Rising) smashes Springsteen's Wall of Sound into rubble.
Lest I lose my suburb pass, there are some killer cuts. "Radio Nowhere" kicks in like a last-chance power drive (sorry), a perfect summer song for autumn. Better still are the gloriously melodic and passionate "Gypsy Biker" and "Girls in Their Summer Clothes"the latter is sad and sweet (detailing what was and what can never be again through the eyes of a man whose days with Spanish Johnny on the boardwalk are through), while the former, with its mix of Beat poetry and Catholic guilt (here the Bruceisms work), is fueled by Springsteen's furious harmonica. But if there's anything Bruce Springsteen truly embodies, it's passion, and what makes Magic not bad but certainly disappointing is that these songs have no purpose. Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born in the U.S.A., The Rivermost of Bruce's catalog is driven by something, be it the end of a marriage or the life, death, and rebirth of a dream. It's cynical, but at times Magic feels like a bone thrown to the industry to keep everyone off Bruce's back so he can continue doing smart folk music. Or an excuse to hang with the guys. Which wouldn't be so awful an excuse if the guys sounded like being back together meant as much to them as it does to us.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play Madison Square Garden October 17-18, thegarden.com
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