For a minute there, it looked like Bruce Springsteen was acting his age. Last year’s early-Americana romp We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions may have been an exercise in fogyism, but if anything, dithering with a zither revitalized him — the leadoff track here, “Radio Nowhere,” a crackling screed lamenting the Clear Channelization of simple pleasures, is as fired up and direct as anything he’s written. Yet the underlying message is broader: At 58, the Boss is angry, not grumpy.
While 2002’s The Rising employed the E Street Band (after a 20-year hiatus) to transform post-9/11 shellshock into anthemic release, Magic uses them to more melancholy effect. “Your Own Worst Enemy” and “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” channel Brian Wilson, layering sleigh bells and swelling strings to craft experimental (by bar-band standards) chamber pop. “Terry’s Song,” recorded in August after the death of Springsteen’s friend Terry Macgovern, is a tearjerking acoustic elegy. More classic-sounding rave-ups like “Last to Die” and “Livin’ in the Future” — a perfect hybrid of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “Cover Me” — work on their own merits, but we already know what those merits are. The real mystery behind Magic, then, isn’t whether the Boss still has some tricks up his sleeve, but why he doesn’t indulge in them more often.