PopMatters — If The Rising was Bruce Springsteen’s soaring, spiritual attempt at making sense of whatever parts of 9/11 one could make sense of—its title track, you’ll remember, found a heroic firefighter ascending a burning building with “spirits above and behind (him)”—his newest record, Magic, is the crashing aftermath, a darkened, defiant survey of the emotional and political wreckage since that dark day. Its 12 songs are laden with alienation, disappointment, and evaporated hope. These themes certainly aren’t new to Bruce’s notebook, but it’s still something to hear such themes so prevalent, so front and center. In a few cases, Magic takes Springsteenian lyrical chestnuts and turns them on their disenfranchised ears: the girl in the Motown/boppy “Livin’ in the Future” sways into town on high heels that sound like the clicks of pistol, while the “flag flyin’ over the courthouse” in “Long Walk Home” inspires not hope or redemption but a subtle national sense of remorse for crimes committed in the names of people who never wanted anything to do with them.
These are not easy tales to spin to a crowd that is used to leaving your live show feeling as though the world was a searingly hopeful beacon of justice, rainbows, truth, and fresh-baked oatmeal cookies. But maybe the magic-est thing about Springsteen’s Magic show is that, even in a slightly abbreviated and grayer form, Springsteen maintains the uncanny and increasingly unbelievable ability to identify hope in a daily rain of chaos.
Springsteen is 58 years old right now, the first of many reasons that the Magic tour shouldn’t be anywhere near as vibrant and relevant as it is. Other obstacles include, but are not limited to, perceptions that: he’s overly preachy and political, his band is too old (Clarence is 65!), and he’s too rich to identify with the common man. And given his own superlative, impossible history, going out and putting on simply a “good” show might not be enough for a fan base that’s come to rightly expect a regular stream of “greatness.”
Lucky for us, there seems to be something about these challenges that’s making him dig deeper. Dark or not, alienating or not, there’s never a moment in the two hour-plus show where you think that Springsteen—all six decades of him—might not be able to pull this off.
None of this is to say that there aren’t the usual, scorching moments of cathartic release: the D.C. show’s opening salvo of “Radio Nowhere”, “No Surrender”, and “Lonesome Day” roared with a vengeance; the first set closed, if you can call it that, with “Badlands”. This show also found Springsteen leaving time for a stomping, galvanic “Working on the Highway” (complete with Elvis poses), as well as the one-two punch of the new, better-on-stage “I’ll Work for Your Love” and “Tunnel of Love”—the later of which sounds more ‘80s than ever and closed with an absolutely bonkers solo from Nils Lofgren.
Elsewhere, “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” shimmered and waved. Aside from that great chorus, it’s one of a few songs on the new record that find Bruce—grudgingly, one imagines—copping to his age: they might pass him by now, but Springsteen allows himself a twinkle to the Sandys and Rosalitas anyway. (For the setlist hawks, this night found Springsteen and band killing an audibled “Growin’ Up” and taking it directly into a roaring “Kitty’s Back”—both songs going on 35 years old).
But for the most part, there’s more darkness on the edge of the Magic show than any tour before it. In the context of such alienation—especially in the D.C. setting, which Springsteen acknowledged with the hot-cha zinger, “I’m so glad to be in your wicked, I mean beautiful, city tonight!”—“No Surrender” became a fierce challenge (the “wide open country in our eyes” seemed a lot more distant). “Reason To Believe”, meanwhile, was rebuilt as a dust-spitting Western rocker in the vein of “La Grange” and “Radio Nowhere”. The tune opened with a war cry (“Is there anybody alive out there?”, which Bruce has been stage-pattering since the ‘70s) that was part call to arms, part indictment—a line that can kick off a big rock show while slyly wondering what, exactly, in the hell have we let happen around here.
Springsteen has said that the hook, the whole turning point of the show happens near the end of the first set, when the cathartic, hopeful-against-odds “The Rising” gives way to “Last to Die”, the new record’s most direct indictment of the war. It’s made more potent when one realizes that the title character, whoever it is, may not have enlisted yet (the song’s based on a speech by John Kerry, no less). When that moment comes, it’s a killer: the shift, the tension, the tone, are like a kick to the stomach. Out of the “li li li”s of “The Rising” comes a black highway, an aimless wander and the question of who’ll be “the last to die for a mistake.”
That’s Springsteen’s challenge this time out: serving the bitter pills of “Last to Die” and “Devil’s Arcade” (given a stern, hammering, Max Weinberg-heavy reading in honor of Veterans’ Day) next to the fizzy release of “She’s the One” and the roaring-as-ever “Night”. The final song of the evening, “American Land”, is a Celtic-punk holdover from his Seeger Sessions experiment. It turned the GA section of the pit into a rubber-floored free-for-all, lobbing these lyrics at the lobbyists and lawmakers in the audience: “The hands that build the country we’re always trying to keep out.”
No one is more hip to the inability of American audiences to read between the lines than Springsteen—these are the people that wanted to use “Born in the USA” to sell pickup trucks, and if anyone can drag Pat Buchanan out of his crypt maybe he could explain why he once used the song as entrance music—but that Springsteen is as invested in such seemingly aging ideals is maybe the biggest reason he’s still doing all this. Such is the assignment that Springsteen has given himself: to keep arguing for the points and people he’s spent nearly four decades arguing for, to allow just the briefest glimpse of nostalgia (via “Born to Run”, of course, and a revved-up “Dancing in the Dark”), to allow more for age and experience. He’s there to to cast light on the horrors of a government run amok, and to make people leave a concert thinking that redemption is not only possible, but is possible by tomorrow morning.