Listening In: New Springsteen Album

This week Bruce Springsteen released "Magic," his first album in five years with the fabled E Street Band. As critics everywhere swoon—"a great return to form" (Reuters); his "most complex, textured work in decades" (The Independent of London); "he looked trimmer and tanner than he had the last time I'd seen him" (The New York Times)—two of NEWSWEEK's biggest Boss fans, Andrew Romano and Susannah Meadows, discussed whether the record actually deserves all the praise.

ROMANO: So after a few days of listening to "Magic," my official reaction is still stuck on "mixed." Which is a little disappointing, really, because liking Springsteen is practically in my blood. I grew up South Jersey, about 45 miles from the Boss's hometown of Freehold, and spent my childhood summers on the shore. As a 2-year-old, I used to "perform" selections from "Born in the U.S.A." for my parents after dinner. When I was a little older, I fell in love with classic Bruce—everything from 1973's "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J." to 1980's "The River."

People often make fun of Garden Staters for our "irrational" obsession with Springsteen, but I think it's totally justified. Those early records lent our relentlessly mocked state a sense of drama, even grandeur. They mythologized the very things—the Exxon stations, the swamps, the tacky boardwalks—that other people made fun of. I used to cruise around my beach town with "Rosalita" on the stereo and pretend I was the song's heartsick singer. For me, it's a matter of pride. It's personal.

Before we get down to reviewing "Magic," I'm curious to know, Susannah, how you became a Springsteen fan. What drew you, a Southern Californian, to his music? Why do you even care?

MEADOWS: Unlike you, I was not born into the faith. Growing up in San Diego, I remember having a crush on the "Born in the U.S.A." Bruce. The one who dressed in muscles, sweat and tight jeans. (You wondered how a Southern Californian could feel a connection.) I thought more about how Courtney Cox got picked to dance with him on stage—how did the video cameraman know to show her before Bruce grabbed her hand?—than what the music meant. Oh. To be her. But as much as I may have daydreamed and enjoyed those catchy songs when they came on the radio, I was a polytheistic kid. I memorized the moves to "Thriller."

When I came to Bruce after college, I wasn't even looking for him. I was renting my sister and her boyfriend's apartment for the summer in San Francisco. He was the fan—such a big one that he even bought Patti Scialfa's album "Rumble Doll," I think, as a courtesy to Bruce. That summer, he left his entire Springsteen collection in the apartment. I started listening, and I was done. I guess I was "Born in the U.S.A." again.

From the start, I was drawn to the less-E-Street-y Bruce, where I could hear his voice and the stories he was telling over the noise of run-of-the-mill guitar piled on a caveman backbeat. They always sounded to me like a glorified bar band. I never got the organ. I never got the fuss over Clarence. And I will never understand why Steven Van Zandt is a star. That summer, I played one particularly fertile stretch off the "Live 1975-1985" album over and over. The band quietens down long enough for Bruce to deliver a plaintive and soulful "Darkness on the Edge of Town," which bleeds into "Racing in the Streets," followed by a rousing, yet bitter sweet rendition of "This Land Is Your Land," and finishes on "Nebraska," where the guy is about to be put to death for having gone on a murdering spree. I would come to think of this as the good Bruce.

Naturally, I think of "Tunnel of Love" as one of his best. And his last string of albums where he ditched the E Street Band again felt like a gift. So when I listened to "Magic," with E Street back in business, I was hardly surprised not to like it much. But, since you're more inclined to like this Bruce, tell me what you think worked.

ROMANO: You're right to say that "Magic," Springsteen's most straightforward rock record since "Born in the U.S.A.," is more in the mold of my Bruce than yours. You like him when he's a smart, stripped-down singer-songwriter, without all the bluster and bravado of being "the future of rock and roll." I like him at his fiestiest—all those absurd, overblown, operatic moments that are so easy to parody, like "Rosalita," "Thunder Road" and "Badlands." What we can agree on is that he's an expert craftsman who has managed, time and again, to mine rock, pop and folk traditions for melodies that seem like they've always existed, and then match them with lyrics that actually attempt to say something about, you know, contemporary America.

On "Magic," he largely hits both of those marks. Nearly every song on the album boasts the sort of comfortable, well-tailored tune that made"Hungry Heart" a top 10 hit. There's a certain graceful inevitability to "You'll Be Comin' Down," "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" and "Your Own Worst Enemy" that sounds really simple but takes a skilled songwriter to pull off. This is his strongest pop material in a long, long time. Couple it with Springsteen's lyrics—thoughtful ruminations on death, deception, the Iraq War, civil liberties and community that darken and deepen the record's upbeat, summery sound—and you've got a collection that's a whole lot more complex than most of what's on the FM dial (or "Radio Nowhere," as Springsteen calls it on the CD's first single). Springsteen might be the only popular musician since protest-era Bob Dylan who can sing political songs without sounding preachy. That Dylan never wrote anything as infectious as, say, "Livin' in the Future," a "Magic" raveup that's been stuck in my head for days, only goes to show why Bruce is the one and only Boss.

But that's also why we superfans hold him to such high standards. To me, "Magic" is a good record. It's just not, ultimately, a good Springsteen record. From what you said earlier, I get the sense that you agree (at least with the "not a good Springsteen record" part). Before I bash Bruce, I'd like to hear how "Magic" fails to do what you think the Boss does best. Other than, ahem, flex his muscles and sweat.

MEADOWS: If only the pop songs on "Magic" were as good as "Hungry Heart"! I don't need my Bruce to be lyrical and stripped down all the time. I love a good pop song. Yes, the songs on this album sure are "comfortable" and "well-tailored," but those aren't the words I would use to describe a song that makes me want to move. To me, those words sum up what's wrong with the album overall: everything feels familiar, too familiar, like a blander, poor man's version of the songs of his I'd rather be listening to. "Magic" is an album of in-betweens, songs you either fast-forward past, or wait out.

I'm suspicious that he was pandering to his fans, going so far as to make his famous concert line—"Is there anybody alive out there?"—the chorus of the first track, "Radio Nowhere." After many of them rejected the more musically sophisticated "Seeger Sessions" album, it's as if he was saying with this record, "Thanks for being patient, now I'll give you what you want." So rather than try anything new on "Magic," he seems to be plagiarizing himself. He rounded up Mary, a gypsy, and something on wheels that goes fast (in this case, a motorcycle). Then he threw in some piano-tinkling, a stretch or two of uninventive sax-playing and plenty of disillusionment.

And I like disillusionment, just not the Cliff's Notes kind. On "Magic," he even sounds like his own imitators. I was reminded of Bryan Adams while listening to this album—twice! So even though my expectations were low, "Magic" is ultimately frustrating for me because I know he knows better than to sing a line as used-up as "she cut me like knife." I do think "Terry's Song" has actual heart and I agree that "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" is a pleasing tune. But even that song is problematic, sounding at times like a parody of a Raymond Carver story, or worse, himself: "The fluorescent lights/ flick over Pop's Grill/ Shaniqua brings the coffee and asks/ "Fill?" and says "Penny for your/ thoughts now my boy, Bill" (As a side note, I wonder if he wanted us to think that the waitress was black.)

And now here we are, back at the carnival. Only this time, it's a Disney version of itself. I can only hope that the fans aren't that stupid, that, even if they want the old Bruce, they won't settle for "Bruce."

ROMANO: You're absolutely right about "comfortable" songs. The best rock music isn't about comfort, and "Magic" is "comfortable" above all else. Comfortable for Springsteen, who doesn't stretch an inch. And comfortable for the stadium audiences that just want an excuse to chug beer, pump their fists and party like it's 1979.

Brendan O'Brien's production sandblasts all nuance out of the music, making it sound like a big, monolithic mass of digital noise. The E Street Band, an incredibly supple gang of musicians, used to sound like the boardwalk—the howl of sax, the twinkle of glockenspiel, the pounding of piano, the rumble and twang of Telecasters. Now they sound like the Stone Temple Pilots.

Springsteen's lyrics may be "well-tailored," as I wrote before, but they're also maddeningly abstract. He's constantly going on about how "my ship Liberty sailed away on a bloody red horizon" and how "we'd marked Truth or Consequences on our map." Sure, I understand he's writing allegorically about the same old stuff—relationships and America, mostly—but I prefer my lyrics to read like real life, not some second-rate sermonizing. On songs like "Racing in the Street," Springsteen crafted rock-solid prose with strong characters and gripping scenes. "Magic" is all "poetry"—or at least what you'd get after carefully rearranging the magnets ("Mary," "Darlin', "Pop's Grill," "Sal's grocery" and "Revelation") on the Springsteen family fridge.

So even though we disagree about our favorite Springsteen records, we agree that "Magic" isn't one of them.

Here's why, I think: Bruce is at his best when he's specific. On his early records, that specificity was of the "endearing Jersey wharf rat" variety, as Slate's Stephen Metcalf once put it. Back then, he was a scrappy, scrawny regional hero transforming what he'd seen and heard on the boardwalk into ecstatic little comic book songs. That's my Bruce.

The second half of his career—from 1978's "Darkness on the Edge of Town" on—has seen Springsteen alternating between two modes. One is the subtle, precise short-story writer of "Nebraska," "Tunnel of Love," "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and "Devils and Dust" (parts of "Darkness" and "The Rising" also fit the bill). That's the Meadows Bruce. The other is, as Metcalf wrote, the "majestic American simpleton ... obsessed with cars, Mary, the Man, and the bitterness between fathers and sons." That's the Bruce of "Magic." And it's getting a little old.