Amid the effusion of praise that greeted Born to Run upon its release in 1975, Nik Cohn attempted, in this very magazine, to puncture the myth of Bruce Springsteen. Cohn wasn’t acting completely alone. The New York Times had just published a 2,000-word diatribe against the man not yet known to the world as the Boss, accusing him of fakery, sentimentality, and assorted other crimes against rock. But Cohn was more damning. While admitting that he enjoyed the album for its pomp and “mock-tragic” vision, Cohn declared Springsteen “essentially irrelevant. The rock-and-roll dream that he so avidly celebrates is dead. Understandably, the people who have raised him to godhood find that hard to accept, for it means the death of their own youth. So they manage one last fling.”
It’s fair to say that history has proved Cohn wrong. Born to Run has stood up as the archetypal rock album of the seventies, just as Born in the U.S.A. may well be the archetypal rock album of the eighties. But Cohn wasn’t crazy or deluded to view Springsteen as an artist trading in spent tropes of youthful rebellion. What he misjudged was the ability of anything else to fully displace those ideas. Disco, punk, post-punk, hip-hop—they all failed to drive Bruce into total obsolescence. He is still here, in his leather jacket and Levi’s, manhandling his beat-up Fender and packing every arena he plays. Do all these people know rock is dead? They don’t give a shit.
But now that Springsteen is pushing 60, you have to wonder, how much longer can he play the guitar-wielding rock hero? His release last year of a Pete Seeger tribute album, though hardly his first foray into folk, suggested an artist in transition, perhaps to a quieter, more contemplative phase. But the raucous, vaudevillian shows he played on the Seeger tour were anything but contemplative. Now he’s back with Magic, his fifteenth album, for which he’s regrouped with his arena-rocking pals, the E Street Band. On the first song, “Radio Nowhere,” the guitars kick right in, and he starts hollering about his need for “pounding drums” and “a world with some soul.” It’s nothing terribly exciting—the main riff has the faux edge that you used to hear from alternative-rock bands making their major-label debuts—but Springsteen sounds genuinely engaged and pissed off.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite keep it up. Though his voice is strong and sincere throughout the album, most of the material has a certain karaoke-like vibe. All but “Radio Nowhere” and the gentle, melancholic title track have what sound to my ears like obvious antecedents in his back catalogue:
You’ll Be Comin’ Down = Lucky Town
Livin’ in the Future = Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Gypsy Biker = The River
I’ll Work for Your Love = Thunder Road
Last to Die = Roulette
The rote familiarity of the material is compounded by the fact that the E Street Band tackles every song—and that’s the word, tackle, as in football—with, at best, dutiful competence. Their skills are suited to huge places. The rhythm section pounds away as if every room has the intimacy of Madison Square Garden. And all apologies to Clarence Clemons, but I’ve heard better saxophone playing on subway platforms.
A license to tour, that’s what this album really is. Once upon a time, bands toured to support albums; now they release albums to support tours. And at this point, Springsteen’s appeal is only partly about music. His boomer fans revere him also as a role model—of how to grow old with integrity, how to get rich without going soft, how to not lose all your hair, how to not get fat, how to not turn into someone who would embarrass your younger self. It’s not eternal youth he symbolizes so much as a version of middle age that you wouldn’t be afraid to look at in the mirror.
Bruce Springsteen. Columbia Records. October 2. $18.98.