First comes the crisp downbeat, followed a nanosecond later by the unmistakable blare of Clarence Clemons' saxophone. Then a bass line that swaggers with a young hustler's confidence ushers in the familiar voice and the chugging organ riff.
The signature Bruce Springsteen sound is alive and well on "Magic," his new disc with the E Street Band, out Tuesday.
Although "Livin' in the Future," the song described above, bears a passing resemblance to the Springsteen classic "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," it also represents a shift away from Springsteen's more overtly political recent work. In the barroom rocker, trouble comes to town "boot heels clickin' like the barrel of pistol spinnin' round." Read one way Springsteen could be describing a hardhearted woman who has unmoored a man. Read another, it could be a bullheaded public servant who disappointed on Election Day and "opened the gates and let the wild dogs run."
As on much of "Magic," Springsteen leaves the interpretive driving up to the fan, offering his most straightforward rock music in years. The politics is there, but quietly; sadness, anxiety, and alienation lie in the margins of the big hooks and burning guitars where they can be parsed by those who care to analyze. It is a canny formula that will reel back in the populist daytrippers who were less jazzed up by the heavier ideas at work on "Devils and Dust" and his last E Street effort, 2002's post-9/11 offering "The Rising."
Signs that Springsteen wants to embrace his loyalists start with the urgent opening track, "Radio Nowhere," which finds him howling "Is there anybody alive out there?" as he heads down the road on a misty night spinning the dial and bemoaning the "drone" coming from his car speakers. Whether you choose to hear "Nowhere" as commentary on corporate radio, the current music scene, or as a larger lament about personal or even national isolation, Springsteen's cry that he's "just searching for a world with some soul" has a timely sense of worry to it. Yet the song also simply kicks butt musically, with irresistible momentum and a melodic invitation to sing along.
Many songs on "Magic" will doubtless sound great live when the band comes to the TD Banknorth Garden in November, and they'll work seamlessly alongside hits from every era of Springsteen's three-decade catalog.
The Orbison-ian swing of the cautionary tale "You'll Be Coming Down," in which Springsteen ruefully charts the inevitable rise and fall of the "next big thing" calls to mind similar melodramas from "Tunnel of Love." The unabashedly romantic promise "I'll Work For Your Love" begins with the classic lone piano intro that is an instantly recognizable Springsteen motif. The playing summons a tingle of recognition before giving way to a brawny Max Weinberg big beat.
"Magic" is front-loaded with more upbeat and carefree material, but Springsteen hasn't abandoned his more reflective nature.
The title song is a stunner full of shivery mandolins, spectral vocal echoes, and dark menace. In certain hands, magic, as Springsteen tells it, can fool as much as it delights. In a hushed voice, he prophesies a bleak conclusion to the "tricks" at hand: "There's a fire down below but it's comin' up here/ So leave everything you know, and carry only what you fear/ On the road the sun is sinkin' low there's bodies hangin' in the trees/ This is what will be."
The album also introduces a few couplets that should take up residence in the Springsteen book of quotations, notably on the angry, war-inspired "Last to Die." In a voice tinged with resignation and regret he asks, "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?" echoing the famous words of his friend - and preferred 2004 presidential candidate - Senator John Kerry.
Artists like Bruce Springsteen face weighty expectations from fans and critics. Every album must either be a stunning return to form or a groundbreaking departure to pass muster. But sometimes a good record is just a good record, not life-changing or seminal. Springsteen and his longtime bandmates prove they still have plenty of cards up their sleeves, but they engage in a more practical kind of "Magic" this time out. Fifty years from now few aficionados will look to this disc as a major Springsteen work; for right now, though, it strikes a tone that feels just right.