Pure magic from The Boss
Bruce Springsteen's latest album and tour will see him roaring with renewed energy and anger, says Neil McCormick
There are thundering drums, a towering wall of chugging, chiming, riffing guitars through which a raw, wailing sax is trying to punch a hole, while a gruff, desperate voice calls: "Is there anybody alive out there?" It is the return of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, laying their marker down with roaring rocker Radio Nowhere.
The anthemic single, which has already been widely heard, heralds a new album from New Jersey's finest. To be called Magic, it will be released on Oct 1. This is the kind of news capable of inducing paroxysms of excitement in music fans of a certain age, for whom the 57-year-old veteran represents the very pinnacle of rock culture.
Those less enamoured may just shrug their shoulders. After all, Springsteen can hardly be considered the most groundbreaking artist.
There is nothing in this track to suggest any new sonic developments, and even the lyrics cover well-worn themes, with the narrator "driving through the misty rain" on " the last lone American night", his fingers "spinnin' round a dead dial" while all he can hear is "a drone bouncing off a satellite" . "I just want to hear some rhythm," he pleads.
It might seem a lot of fuss about not being able to find a decent station on the car radio.
Ah, but things are rarely quite that simple in the world of Springsteen. For all the fist-waving associated with his live performances, he is a subtle master of the miniature narrative in which big themes are refracted.
In his best songs, the personal becomes universal and, as often as not, political. And there is an undercurrent of disquiet in the single, a sense that all is not well in Springsteen's very particular vision of America.
Perhaps it is the fact that music - and in particular rock-and-roll radio - forms an essential part of his mythos, something that connects Americans to the true values of their nation. But, in Radio Nowhere, his driver's loneliness is accompanied only by static. Something has been lost, and he seems uncertain where to find it.
The one-word album title, Magic, is very un-Springsteen. There is no beat poetry here, just a seemingly generic, innocuous and much over-used word, much associated with glitzy entertainment. But there is a deep irony in the way Springsteen employs it, for there is a particular kind of black magic at the heart of his most recent songs. It is visible between the lines of 2005's sombre Devils & Dust, where idealistic visions of the land of the free disappear in the shimmering heat haze of the Iraqi desert.
Although Springsteen's manager, Jon Landau, has been insisting "politics is not the primary intention of this album", there are plenty of indications that this could be misleading.
An artist deeply tuned into the American psyche, Springsteen has almost acted as the musical conscience of his country, and his output over this decade has chronicled a nation's increasing unease with itself.
His extraordinary 2002 double album, The Rising (marking a reunion of the E Street Band for the first album since the 1984 classic Born in the USA), was an attempt to articulate his countrymen's bewildered response to the events of 9/11. The sombre, solo, stripped-back Devils & Dust suggested disillusion with the warmongering direction his country was taking, pondering "what if what you do to survive/kills the things you love?"
Last year's joyously raucous We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, recorded with a large, improvising ensemble, might have seemed a complete departure except that, by reclaiming old protest songs, Springsteen was reasserting the innate political liberalism of that mythical America, built on principles of freedom and equality.
There was a sense that Springsteen initially disbanded the E Street Band because the scale of their sound was somehow limiting. When he calls them together, it is because that scale suits the songs, suggesting he has something vital and significant to say. "We've been together since 1974, and I don't think I've ever seen him more excited than he is right now about this record," says Landau.
With a tour kicking off in North America in October, reaching Europe in November (and London's O2 on Dec 19), it would appear Springsteen is ready to do some grandstanding, and somehow turn his complex thoughts and feelings about the country he loves into big, radio-friendly pop music.
I will let you into a secret: I have heard the new album. But all I can say for now is that it excited me as much as anything Springsteen has produced, bitter pills sugar-coated by the immense rock and roll of a great band.
Some of the titles alone convey a sense of Springsteen's ambivalence, verging on disappointment, with his emotionally divided nation: Your Own Worst Enemy, Last to Die, Devil's Arcade and Long Walk Home. The latter was performed during his last tour, and a version has been previously available as an official live recording on the internet. Landau called it the " summational song on the album, one of Bruce's great masterpieces".
It is a truly great song, as anyone who heard it live can attest, and a key to his subtle marriage of the personal and political.
The narrator recalls his father's words about a time when "the flag flying over the courthouse/Means certain things are set in stone/Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't." Springsteen concludes, "It's gonna be a long walk home", yet makes the idea of the journey uplifting, with that knack he has of discovering redemption in the most desperate situations.
There was a time when Springsteen's protagonists yearned to escape small-town America, rebelling against its stultifying insularity on Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Now, it appears, he longs for a return to simple values, kindness to neighbours, the familiarity of what we know - basic decency.
That he can distil all of this in ultimately life-affirming pop music is a gift.
"I want a thousand guitars / I want pounding drums / I want a million voices speaking in tongues," Springsteen demands on 'Radio Nowhere', while his band do their best to provide just that. They don't call him The Boss for nothing.
Bruce Springsteen plays the Odyssey Arena, Belfast, on Saturday, December 15