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Bruce Springsteen is back with the E Street Band for his latest studio album.

Is Magic the same ol’ Boss, or does Springsteen have some new tricks up his sleeve? staffers George Henn, Mike Madden and Michael Corby hash it out.

GEORGE HENN: Magic is just Bruce Springsteen’s third studio album with the E Street Band since 1987 and also a rarity for him for another reason: It is, by and large, a fun, feel-good listen. When was the last time we could say that? Even his last E Street project, 2002’s The Rising, had its upbeat moments, but the pall of Sept. 11, 2001, hovered over it. With this disc, which follows a jug-band foray (2006’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions) and a dark and self-indulgent solo offering (2005’s Devils and Dust), Springsteen has tapped into more of the slickly produced, party-band vibe of The River era. As such, these songs should translate quite well live as the Boss and his favorite contractors take the album on the road this week.

MICHAEL CORBY: It’s enjoyable when Springsteen is not on a personal/political agenda and reverts back to being the great bandleader that he was/is. This record is just about making good rock music like in the past, like on The River or 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. The album’s first single, “Radio Nowhere,” leaves very little doubt as to what direction Springsteen and the band are going in. Hopefully, Springsteen will perform most of the new material and sprinkle it with the right combination of old stuff.

MIKE MADDEN: While it’s true that Magic can be viewed as revisiting Springsteen’s heyday of record-making, he actually has changed up his arranging techniques a bit. The prime example of this shift is on the song “Your Own Worst Enemy,” which drives itself forward with the big-room, lush arrangement that has been the calling card of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. Springsteen avoids the novelty-track status here by not going overboard on his vocals and letting the music take center stage.

HENN: Give Springsteen & Co. credit for some new approaches on this disc, but the production is overdone a bit, if only because some of the lyrics get lost in the arrangements and all the bells and whistles producer Brendan O’Brien employs on several tracks. In the case of “Livin’ in the Future” — which at the heart of it sounds like a “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” rewrite — some of Springsteen’s lines are barely intelligible. There are jumbled political references to Election Day and torture, topped off with a cute if illogical chorus: “We’re livin’ in the future, and none of this has happened yet.” Then there is “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” which sounds like an out-and-out summer-song homage to the Beach Boys. The novel approach is refreshing, but Springsteen’s overcooked vocals are almost a distraction. More effective is the stripped-down title track, where Springsteen cleverly conjures up every magician metaphor in the book to describe political sleight-of-hand (“I’ll cut you in half while you’re smiling ear to ear”), and delivers it with something sorely missing on much the album: intimacy.

CORBY: Springsteen’s lyrics are weak on many tracks on this album, and he seems to struggle to find his “rock” voice as he slips in and out of the folky twang he has been using on his last two albums. “Gypsy Biker,” perhaps the most rocking track on this disc, is weighed down by the lame lead vocals and unintelligible lyrics, ruining what could have been a stellar rock performance. Chalk it up to age or stylistic changes, but Springsteen is outperformed by the E Street Band for most of this album.
The title track is prime evidence that he cannot let go of his fondness for folk. It is an extremely weak song, which should have been stashed in the vault. The track “Magic” further suggests that Springsteen should stay out of the production room and let O’Brien do his thing — capturing the magic of the musicians.

MADDEN: The musicians do have their shining moments here, especially Danny Federeci‘s dynamite organ fills on “Gypsy Biker.” The E Street Band just has that gift to steer itself around rocky notes or overproduction. Another prime example is “Long Walk Home,” which easily could have been just another somber reflection for a solo acoustic album. Once the band kicks in, the song blooms into one of Springsteen’s best works, a true chugging anthem that features one hell of an outro with the right amount of guitar-solo heroics and sweet saxophone. Surely Jon Bon Jovi will be looking to rip this song off on his next effort.

HENN: Yes, I can see the title of this track already — “Who Says You Can’t Go on a Long Walk Home.” But seriously, back to discussing the outfit that probably made Jon Bon Jersey want to pick up a guitar in the first place: the E Street Band. For all my criticisms of some of the production, one strong point of this recording is that you really can hear the players’ distinctive contributions at many points. Guitars and drums crackle on such visceral cuts as “Gypsy Biker” and “Radio Nowhere”; the sweeping keyboards help push “Devil’s Arcade” along seductively; and sometimes a burst of Clarence Clemons ‘sax or having Steve Van Zandt‘s harmony pushed up in the mix make even a mediocre Springsteen rocker sound as if it belongs with the classics. Having such a seasoned band behind him is an invaluable weapon for the Boss, and I can’t help but think that in a live setting, many of Magic‘s tunes will sound like powerhouse numbers once the tour gets rolling. As Springsteen himself said before the album’s release, these songs were written to be performed live with this band, so in a way, maybe the best measure of this new batch of tunes is in how they translate onstage.

CORBY: While Magic may not be a classic, it’s a very solid rock album. The playing of the E Street Band is the highlight. Springsteen has his spotty moments, but he pushes forward and still leads the band to where it needs to be. Years ago, before advances in recording, Springsteen would state that his records were always a sneak peak at what the band could deliver live. The E Street Band was what always separated him from the rest of the pack of singer-songwriters, so this record brings everything full circle.

MADDEN: Magic will end up on many critics Top 10 albums list for 2007 — and deservedly so — and the tour to follow will seemingly last forever and delight fans, but I’m worried about the self-indulgent Springsteen coming back to haunt us on his next work. Hopefully this album is a monster hit that makes him realize that the true “magic” lies within his assembled assistants and their ability to pull tricks out of their respective hats.