Thursday, October 11, 2007

Suffering from Bruce-lash

Suffering from Bruce-lash
Written by Eric Whelchel
Published October 11, 2007
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» Music Review: Justice - Cross
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I’m suffering from an acute case of Brucelash. Springsteen and the "Yeesh They’re Looking Pretty Old Band" (sorry, I mean “the E Street Band”) are seemingly everywhere lately, in support of their recently released and much ballyhooed album, Magic. In the last couple weeks, Bruce and the band have appeared on the Matt Lauer Snarky Time Happy Hour (also known as the Today Show), and Springsteen also appeared on 60 Minutes in a carefully crafted interview that reinforced the familiar Springsteen public persona (portrayal of said musician as an approachable and humorous man-of-the-people despite millionaire status? Check. Musings on what it means to be an American? Check. References to working class background and childhood in New Jersey? Check).

The critical response to the album has been extremely positive. On this very website, several contributors have sung their praises for the album on a few occasions, though I suspect that they might be/could be/maybe could be/just a little bit possibly are somewhat predisposed to like the album regardless of its actual content. Even the usually difficult to please Pitchfork gave the album a positive review, and that website usually saves its most enthusiastic praise for the following: anything Radiohead does, any band that features a Japanese woman sputtering out sentence fragments over music that sounds like a 1980s sitcom theme song, or any band whose name is either a declarative command or could be mistaken for a line of poetry from a female college student. As I checked out the album at a local retail store, a store employee approached me, and in breathless, hushed tones, told me the album was one of the greatest things he’d ever heard. His praise was so excessive I felt like I was holding a sacred relic upon which I should not even look, lest its sacred glow permanently blind my eyes.

Yet I still cannot bring myself to seal the deal and buy the album. I think I know why.

First, all this effusive praise is vaguely familiar: similar plaudits were lauded upon Bruce and the boys when The Rising was released a few years ago. Based on these reviews, I purchased the album and was supremely underwhelmed. Listening to it again recently, what surprised me most is how many of the songs sound dated; they suffer from a production approach that somehow seems both sterile and over-saturated at the same time. Looking back on the album now, I’m convinced the positive response for the album can be attributed to both an initial enthusiastic response to Springsteen and the band releasing an album together after many years away from each other, and, on a more serious note, because the album was seen as one of the earliest artistic works that addressed (however implicitly) the events and after-effects of 9/11.

The second issue that’s preventing me from buying the album and joining the angel band in song is the Santana factor. Let me explain. In 1999, Santana released Supernatural, which was touted as his best album since the Paleolithic era. The album caught on like wildfire. It sold 9,999,999,999,999 copies. It was required listening in grade schools across the country. It won countless awards and was anointed as the most important work of artistry since The Great Gatsby. It landed the musician a soft drink endorsement. It revealed that “the dude from matchbox 20” had an actual name. Everyone was enthralled with Santana, the super-cool aura he exuded, and especially, his truly remarkable porn-stache.

Of course, the mania around Magic has reached nowhere near the level of hysteria for Supernatural. The marketing push given to Springsteen’s album doesn’t come close to the push that Supernatural received (you couldn’t breathe air or fear Y2K in 1999 without seeing Santana on the television or hearing him on the radio). Still, I can’t help but think that some of the touchy-feely humping being thrust upon this album is at least partially a result of a careful marketing plan (select interviews, positive press, and a full-scale arenas-only world tour), and partially the result of many fans’ desire to see Springsteen and the E Street Band back together again, reliving their (here it comes!) glory days.

The final factor that’s currently preventing me from throwing down some baksheesh for this album is the simple fact that I can count the number of Brendan O’Brien-produced albums that I like on approximately, oh, three fingers.

Finger 1: Devils. Finger 2: and. Finger 3: Dust. I will readily admit there are many albums produced by O’Brien that I’ve never heard; I’m sure I’ll get around to checking out Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert by Raging Slab and Waste of Skin by Spike 1000 one of these days. However, of the albums I’ve heard, I’ve always found them overproduced and overpolished. O’Brien’s albums remind me of someone who smiles all the time; sure, it’s reassuring and non-threatening, but after a while, it’s just obnoxious and annoying. Then again, maybe I’m turning into a cranky music snob and cannot see the merits of Drops of Jupiter by Train or Significant Other by Limp Bizkit.

I want to buy Magic, give it a full listen, and say that it’s among Springsteen and the band’s best, on par with Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town. At their best, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are a force capable of making grown men weep, making the sky rain, and making the bad girls go good. I’m sure at some point in the coming weeks my Brucelash will end and I’ll buy the album. But right now I’m having a difficult time convincing myself this thing is something more than, at best, an overrated album, or, at worst, a polished turd whose stink is being masked by critics’ and fans’ enthusiasm to see Springsteen and the band rocking again like it’s 1978.

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