At the turn of the century, for the first time it was unclear what space Bruce Springsteen occupied in the popular music landscape. He had disbanded his legendary band and spent the 90s largely out of the spotlight. He raised three children with his bandmate Patti Scialfa and they moved back to New Jersey from California. There were three respectable records and a couple of tours but nowhere near the fanfare of his megastar years. Then in 1999, he reconvened The E Street Band for a reunion tour behind a four CD box set of outtakes. Each night, they showcased a new song called ‘Land of Hopes and Dreams’ which riffed off the traditional gospel song “This Train.” It’s message of inclusion and welcome served as a metaphor for the promise of America to generations of immigrants as well as a statement of purpose for a band that built up thunderous momentum whenever they hit the stage. On the final 10-night stand at Madison Square Garden they added four new songs – most famously including “American Skin (41 Shots).” That incredible song and “Land of Hopes and Dreams” were on the Live in New York album signaling a torrent of new music to come.

It started with The Rising, as important a record as Springsteen has ever made. It was the first major cultural work to respond to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and it is a stunner. The lyrics work from different angles and emotional spaces from broad metaphor to specific detail. The songs invoke firefighters climbing the stairs, post-traumatic stress hookups, the empty seat at the family table, suicide bombers, interfaith relationships, and throughout all of this the search for meaning and kinship in the aftermath of collective trauma. It also brought new sounds in – electronic loops, Qawwali singing, the strings of Patti Scialfa’s friend and old busking partner Soozie Tyrell. This sense of musical exploration would expand further and further for Bruce as the 00s wore on.

Springsteen was emerging not just from the shell of the 90s but finding a looser creative freedom in all kinds of ways. On an extensive acoustic tour behind the solo album Devils & Dust, he recast his songs on auto-harp, banjo, and an array of keyboards and guitars with every corner of his catalog fair game. Those performances ended every night with a trancelike Suicide cover “Dream Baby Dream.” Bruce then brought together an ad-hoc band used for a 90s Tribute album to Pete Seeger Where Have All the Flowers Gone to record an entire record of freewheeling folk songs popularized by Seeger. He had always played his politics close to the chest in his younger days but now his opposition to the wars of the Bush administration were a major element of his concerts and albums. The next E Street record, 2007’s Magic, incorporated that rage into many of the songs. On every tour the bulk of the show was unapologetically new material in a way that kept any sense of classic rock nostalgia far away.

This wasn’t an artist playing the old hits only for the faithful. Bruce was resonating with reborn cultural relevance unmatched by anyone of his generation. Each new record of original Springsteen music topped the charts in multiple countries, he won a basket of Grammy’s, played the MTV music awards and SNL, took home a Golden Globe, was honored by the Kennedy Center, and knee slid into the screens of America at Super Bowl half-time. With R.E.M and Bright Eyes, The E Street Band played a leg of the Vote for Change tour to support John Kerry’s candidacy in ’04. He was a feature of Obama’s 2008 run with the title track from The Rising serving as campaign theme song. “The Rising” was sung with a gospel choir on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at Obama’s inauguration followed by ‘This Land is Your Land’ with Pete Seeger and Tao-Rodriguez Seeger. He could sell out nearly 20 stadiums on one tour in the Northeast, hundreds of arenas across the USA, and played to fields of the devoted in Europe. Indie bands like Arcade Fire, Gaslight Anthem, The National, and The Hold Steady were writing E Street style anthems while waves of young songwriters reverently cited his influence. While perhaps none of this could out-do the legendary status of his younger days, something else had happened. Bruce Springsteen had become the bardic ambassador of America’s conscience with the fight between our better angels and lesser demons built into the fabric of the songs.

An old adage in the music industry is “it’s all about the song,” as in no amount of polish will fix a bad one. Between the years 2000 and 2010, Bruce Springsteen released over 60 original songs plus the Seeger Sessions and you have to work hard to find a dud. Here we discuss the many highlights that stand among his best work for their sweeping musicality and breadth of storytelling. The legend is that the seed of The Rising began when a random driver saw Springsteen from his car and called out to him “Hey Bruce, we need you!”. He answered this not just with that record but a decade of service through music. It was heavy, it was beautiful, and it sounded triumphant. – Casey Neill

“American Skin (41 Shots)”

On February 4, 1999, four plainclothes members of the New York City Police Department stopped 23-year-old Amadou Diallo as they searched for a serial rapist. At some point, Diallo reached into his pocket for his wallet. The police fired 41 shots at Diallo, hitting him 19 times. They would be later be exonerated on charges of second-degree murder and reckless endangerment.

Bruce Springsteen debuted “American Skin (41 Shots)” at an Atlanta show in June 2000, kicking off the new decade with one of his finest songs. Though a studio version would eventually appear on High Hopes (2014), the urgent incarnation on the 2001 Live in NYC record is the definitive version of the song, a prescient paean for the unarmed Black men who continue to be killed by the police.

The song begins with an eerie repetition of words, “41 shots” as Springsteen asks the audience to quiet down. Then, as he sings, you can hear the Boss laboring to keep his emotions at bay, breathing heavy between each line. As a follow-up to the buoyant “Land of Hope and Dreams,” “American Skin” sets a heavy mood on the album. And while we consider “American Skin” to be one of Springsteen’s indelible songs of the decade, not everyone agreed.

Following the Atlanta show, the E Street Band was set to play a 10-show run at Madison Square Garden. Upper-ranking members of the New York police and mayor Rudy Giuliani all condemned Springsteen for the song and urged New Yorkers to boycott his concerts. Bob Lucente, the NYC president of the Fraternal Order of Police called out Springsteen, using epithets such as “dirtbag” and “floating fag.”

True protest songs are the ones that rankle the people in power. Sadly, things have not improved since 1999 as police still murder Black Americans in a discriminatory manner. Springsteen may not say his name in the song, but “American Skin (41 Shots)” tells the tragic story of Amadou Diallo and should resonate with anyone who claims to inhabit an American skin. – David Harris

“Into the Fire”

“Into the Fire” was the first song that Bruce Springsteen wrote for The Rising, which came to be defined by his reflection on the Sept. 11 attacks. According to The Boss, a few days after the Twin Towers fell, a stranger stopped in his car next to him in Asbury Park, rolled down the window and yelled out, “We need you now.” “Into the Fire” shows the seriousness that Springsteen took that request, as a country-tinged tribute to all of those who lost their lives during the attacks.

While the song is focused on those who died, it’s sung from the perspective of their loved ones who lost their partners, parents, children, friends and more. In one line, a husband or wife sings out, “I need your kiss/ But love and duty called you some place higher.” Later in the song, Springsteen pays tribute to the brave passengers of Flight 93 who overtook the hijacked plane cockpit and crashed it in a field rather than letting the plane reach its target. “You gave your love to see/ In fields of red and autumn brown/ You gave your love to me/ And lay your young body down,” Springsteen sings, his voice weighed with sorrow.

Thinking of the sacrifice so many others made that day, the chorus offers up a prayer from Springsteen and all those touched by that tragedy that we can live up to their example. “May your strength give us strength/ May your faith give us faith,” he sings, a solemn eulogy. While the song is often overlooked for the anthemic title track, “Into the Fire” offers an equally vital remembrance to those who died on 9/11, whether a firefighter, EMT or a civilian who sacrificed themselves to save many others. As Springsteen sings at the end, “May your love give us love.” – Joe Marvilli

“Nothing Man”

While the songs on The Rising took on a renewed significance after the album’s release a few months after the Sept. 11th attacks, several of these songs had been kicking around in Bruce’s head for years before their release. “Nothing Man,” for example, was written a good eight years before the album was finished and seven years before 9/11. Its lyrics, easily transposed on to the mindset of first responders who had experienced something horrifying. However, these themes are ones that Springsteen has explored for years prior; his finest works are littered with these forgotten men–be they soldiers, firemen, or any number of occupations that working-class folks will turn to for the promise of being lifted out of destitution–figuring out how to exist in a world that doesn’t understand what it has asked of them.

The speaker of “Nothing Man” is a broken shell of who he used to be, and he can’t understand how the world continues to move on as if nothing had happened to him. Springsteen sells this concept brilliantly with a subdued, disquieting performance that stands very much in contrast with the full-band bombast that characterizes most of The Rising is replete with. Bruce sings in a low murmur, his grizzled vocals hinting at the numbing fog through which trauma victims often experience the world. The speaker’s small town is getting on with life as it always has; the only sign of change is the reporting on the speaker’s exploits in the local paper. This is no consolation for our speaker, who longs for some sort of recognition and connection, even as he knows his state of mind makes that next to impossible. By song’s end, the speaker’s fate is uncertain, but Springsteen’s refusal to provide a light at the end of this tunnel gives an indication of what that could be. – Kevin Korber

“Empty Sky”

The image of an empty skyline quickly became one of the most powerful in the days, weeks and years after 9/11, a gaping absence in lower Manhattan and New York City as a whole. The famed Tribute in Light existed both as a memorial and a way to fill that void. The emptiness wasn’t solely physical though, as the attacks left a psychological wound in the hearts and minds of New Yorkers, a void that left many numb or traumatized. Without even hearing a single note of “Empty Sky,” Bruce Springsteen’s already made a cathartic, relatable impression on a hole in the hearts of the city.

The song opens with a mix of processed beats and a somber piano before leading into acoustic strums and Springsteen’s harrowed lyrics. Sung about a widower who lost his wife in the attacks, the emptiness is far more staggering when it’s not just in a skyline, but in your home and in the life built with a loved one. “I woke up this morning/ I could barely breathe/ Just an empty impression/ In the bed where you used to be,” Springsteen sings.

But the devastation the narrator feels also leads to thoughts of revenge against those who committed the attacks. With only a few words, Springsteen does a brilliant job of showing the chaotic swirl of emotions that come with such a sudden and unthinkable loss. “(I want a kiss from your lips/ I want an eye for an eye,)” he sings, grief only matched by rage. From there, Springsteen delves into religious imagery of Genesis, from the murder of innocent Abel to the Tree of Life. For the latter, two sons carve a bow from the tree, one for good and one for evil, reflecting Springsteen’s conflicted thoughts on the war that followed the attacks. But for the narrator, the overwhelming feeling is hollowness, a chasm in his home and his city. – Joe Marvilli

“You’re Missing”

“You’re Missing” strikes a vein of loss that reflects the jarring feeling of an unexpected absence. With lyrics running through the simple, taken-for-granted aspects of everyday life, Springsteen draws on the mundane details that are irrevocably transformed by death. The details of an ordinary domestic scene are caught like a freeze frame, from the coffee cups on the counter to the TV playing in the den, a warm homecoming for the one who will never return.

Throughout the song, there is an incantatory power through repetition. The phrases “everything is everything” and “you’re missing” work together to create the dichotomy of a just-so life that in one moment can no longer exist. The call-and-response of the lyrics are concert-worthy: it’s easy to imagine yourself in the audience, with one arm around the person next to you and the other hoisting your lighter or cell phone into the air, singing along. Evoking that feeling is a Springsteen trademark, making both his best songs and his concerts unforgettable.

The poignancy of “You’re Missing” recalls 1993’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” the chilling track that Springsteen wrote and performed for the film Philadelphia. “You’re Missing” carries that weight well, despite the differences between the songs. “Streets of Philadelphia” is stripped down musically, with Springsteen providing most of the instrumentation himself. On the other hand, “You’re Missing” is powered emotionally by violin and cello, joining the solid core of musicians that includes Steven Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren and Clarence Clemons.

Although the song is situated in the aftermath of September 11th, it can resonate with anyone who has lost a loved one. Comments posted online by fans indicate that “You’re Missing” is a song that many have turned to in moments of grief. “You’re Missing” offers solace, far beyond September 11th, while also carrying that loss forward in time. – Linda Levitt

“The Rising”

If there’s any 21st century song that reaches the heights and pathos of Bruce Springsteen’s best work from his classic era, it’s “The Rising.” The verses are told from the perspective of the firefighters who climbed the stairs of the World Trade Center, “a sixty-pound stone” on their backs. As a mixture of guitar notes and wavy synths build up behind him, Springsteen paints an image of the absolute hell the first responders went through and the resiliency they had in the face of both an impossible circumstance and the knowledge that they’d likely never make it back down those stairs.

But rather than being a journey into a heart of darkness, the chorus is one of rebirth, renewal and faith in each other. Springsteen’s voice is joined by the rest of the E-Street Band to sing to “lay your hands in mine,” a call of trust in the best of the human spirit to overcome the worst of humanity’s demons. To this day, especially in New York and New Jersey, live performances of the song are met with an elated reaction, his audience singing along to the chorus as a cathartic release for their losses or memories of that tragic day.

It’s the type of music that has a life beyond Springsteen. It inspired a 9/11 memorial in Westchester County and has been used in presidential campaigns by Democrats over the years. Springsteen himself has reinterpreted the track over the years, from anthemic to soulfully acoustic. The rising described in the title could be the reconstruction of a devastated lower Manhattan, of a city and country healing after tragedy, or those who lost their lives ascending to a world above. It’s a universal plea that’s just as powerful as “Jungleland,” “The Promised Land” or “Thunder Road.” But most of all, it’s a song of hope at a time when Springsteen’s community and country needed it most. – Joe Marvilli

“My City of Ruins”

The concept of “Death of the Author” insists that an artist’s intent when creating something is meaningless; the only interpretations that matter are those of the audience who consume it and bring their own experiences with them to imbue the work with meaning. Few pieces of modern songwriting exemplify the concept quite like “My City of Ruins.” As originally intended by Springsteen, the song depicts the decay of Asbury Park, New Jersey, the city from which the E Street band rose up that has since seen difficult times as its allure as a seaside resort town has faded. That intent, however, was undone when Springsteen first performed the song for a charity telethon after 9/11. Even the finished recording speaks less about urban decay and the passage of time and speaks more to the memories of living immediately in the aftermath of that horrible day.

Unlike the soul flare-ups and rock barnburners that precede it on the album, “Ruins” is a slow, meditative song that wears its gospel heart on its sleeve. Indeed, religious imagery runs rampant throughout the song, which also depicts a bombed-out city and a lost loved one. It’s easy to see how so many people reeling from the death and devastation of 9/11 gravitated towards this song, both in how it shares that feeling of despair and how it strives to find rescue and salvation from that despondency. Springsteen’s chorus, on which he is accompanied by backing vocalists recorded to resemble a church choir, is simple in its urgent exhortation: “Come on, rise up!/ Come on, rise up!.” It can sound desperate, as if the command is a last resort, but in Springsteen’s hands, it works as encouragement, a reminder that we can get through the hard times if we work together and support each other. Whether in Asbury Park or in Lower Manhattan, the hard times are not forever. – Kevin Korber

“Devils & Dust”

It’s no surprise that “Devils & Dust” is a morose meditation on the Iraq War as it was conceived in the same timespan as most of Springsteen’s previous album The Rising. Tracks from The Rising are more wounded than the later damnations Springsteen would pen on Iraq. Probably because said wounds were still fresh. On “Devils & Dust” Springsteen portrays an American soldier whose faith in God fuels his faith in his actions only from the toll of warfare to dissociate him from his morals.

“Devils & Dust” has the skeleton of an arena-sized anthem. There are cues where Springsteen should vault over the stars but is weighed down by combat boots caked in blood. He is as sympathetic as he is damming. The cut almost baits rampant patriotism by tossing the protagonist an inch of sympathy. “I’ve got God on my side,” transitions to, “we’ve got God on our side.” But this sympathy corrodes into a lack of faith in our nation’s goodwill, mirroring the growing confusion about America’s national identity. As the time spent in Iraq lengthened debate arose about the war’s justification. “Devils & Dust” compounds that with the uneasy landscape of the 2000s where the feeling of powerlessness amidst unending conflict flourished.

Faith can beget harm when founded not by protecting rights but by a moralistic devotion to identification; how identities molt into nationalist sentiments because there’s no pride elsewhere. The United States was finally a victim after 9/11. But had that victimization, which clamored for healing, slid into an excuse to exercise hard power? Springsteen highlights the necessity of self-awareness. He identifies how morals can be misconstrued to punish in some inebriated journey for solace. – Colin Dempsey

“Long Time Coming”

One cold fall evening, I stood outside in the rain with members of the New Jersey band Titus Andronicus talking about another, more famous musician from the Garden State. Between drags on a cigarette, Titus frontman Patrick Stickles held court on Springsteen, a musician he long-admired. However, when the subject of Devils & Dust came up, Stickles basically said, “I’ve been waiting my entire life for the Boss to drop the F-bomb on record and he goes and does it on that shitty song.”

The line in question comes from “Long Time Coming,” the most buoyant, and decidedly unshitty, track on Devils.Well there’s a just a spark of a campfire left burning/ Two kids in a sleeping bag beside/ I reach ‘neath your shirt, lay my hands across your belly/ And feel another one kicking inside/ And I ain’t gonna fuck it up this time,” Springsteen sings. The “fuck” in question is intoned as a self-admonishment and not a violent threat or crude sexual reference.

For a quiet album, Devils & Dust does see the Boss cut loose quite a bit. The content in “Reno” is borderline pornographic and the use of profanity here shows a singer expanding his lyrical palette to include notes of blue. “Long Time Coming” wasn’t a Johnny-come-lately added to a new album. The tune had been kicking around since The Ghost of Tom Joad sessions in the mid-‘90s and even appeared during Springsteen’s 1996 solo tour.

More than anything, “Long Time Coming” is the Boss at his poetic best. Check out these opening lines: “Out where the creek turns shallow and sandy/ And the moon comes skimming away from the stars/ The wind in the mesquite comes rushing over the hilltops/ Straight into my arms.” Though the song sounds breezy, it deals with themes such as becoming a new father while grappling with an absent father of your own. With Soozie Tyrell’s violin prominently featured, “Long Time Coming” is a gorgeous, pastoral ramble through weighty, earthly issues that keeps one eye focused upon the stars. – David Harris

“Matamoros Banks”

Matamoros sits on the Mexican side of the border from Brownsville and here Springsteen tells the story of someone making the journey across the desert alone with loved ones far behind. This song echoes themes Bruce explored on the 1996 album The Ghost of Tom Joad, where he tackled the aspirational and dangerous immigrant experience in Texas, California, and the American southwest. Bruce has described “Matamoros Banks” as a sequel to Joad‘s gorgeous stand-out track “Across the Border.” While that song is a plaintive plea for deliverance, “Matamoros Banks” offers a harrowing and all too common conclusion.

The narrative device Bruce uses is to start at that grim ending and work backwards. In the first verse we are being spoken to by a corpse floating in the river as it describes the scenery, the open sky, and it’s own decomposition. “The turtles eat the skin from your eyes, so they lay open to the stars.” “Glory Days” this is not. The second verse is chapter one, with the narrator now alive on a night walk across the dry terrain, and in the last verse they are killed with Brownsville shining off in the distance. As stark as all this sounds, most of the song is focused on the beauty of the landscape, the promise of new life, and sweet memories of the narrator’s beloved. All of this with an acoustic backdrop, subtle strings, and a keening melody. The lyrics are infused with the Catholic imagery that Bruce often invokes in his songs. And the things of the earth, they make their claim / That the things of heaven may do the same

The events described are daily reality on the Mexico border. Matamoros has recently been the site of harrowing camps full of people hoping to make their way to the USA from Central America. Springsteen recently posted a live video of “Matamoros Banks” along with a statement about the humanitarian crisis to promote Project Adelante’s work in support of asylum seekers. – Casey Neill

How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?

By 2005 Bruce was so far from a “poor man” that covering Blind Alfred Reed’s nearly century old protest song would’ve seemed pedantic. Imagine filling the shoes of a poor black man as a white rock singer with over 150 million global album sales. Wisely, Springsteen’s cover transplanted the frame to a more tangible cause – Hurricane Katrina. He puts it simply; “Them who’s got, got out of town/And them who ain’t got left to drown.

Hurricane Katrina revealed the government’s inability to provide relief and the vast stratification between classes. Pre-evacuations were guarded by stark class divisions. Over a quarter of the New Orleans population lived below the poverty line. Many couldn’t afford to leave, even in the face of a Category Five tropical storm. The government fumbled at aiding the victims. They stranded hundreds in the flooded wrecks of New Orleans by closing the Gretna bridge and the extended tendrils of their authority opened fire on civilians in the Danziger Bridge Shooting.

While lyrically Springsteen reworks “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” into a reflection of Katrina sonically he takes more from Ry Cooder’s 1970 version than Blind Alfred Reed’s original. Cooder loaded his take with roots rock shrubberies, increasing the density of the track but not its social weight. Bruce remedies this by infusing a gospel chorus. The gospel elements tie the track deeper into its southern roots. Springsteen’s changes put him in solidarity with those who suffered the most, reflective of his forever enduring empathy. His strength has always been how much he believed in his music and his message, meaning that even if the compositions were lackluster or his choices circled back on themselves or his songs sounded like an excuse to reunite the E Street Band one more time, he always gave a shit. And nowhere is he more invigorated than when the chorus hits. Springsteen’s interpretation of “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” is a message of ubiquitous rebuilding. – Colin Dempsey

“Radio Nowhere”

As the opening track to Springsteen’s 2007 album Magic, “Radio Nowhere” calls out for connection, establishing a feeling of dissatisfaction that runs through the album. Starting out with a strong guitar line, “Radio Nowhere” announces itself as an upbeat rock song that easily fits into the Springsteen catalog. For longtime listeners, the familiarity of his guitar and vocals recalls “Rosalita” and “Hungry Heart.”

The idea of radio is used here in an unemotional but nostalgic way. “Radio Nowhere” calls out for the pleasure of a shared experience: spending the day at the beach or an evening at the movie theater or listening to the same song on the radio. Moving into an increasingly digital culture at the time of its release, the first lines of “Radio Nowhere” establish the feelings of isolation that inspire the song’s urgency: “I was trying to find my way home / But all I heard was a drone / Bouncing off a satellite / Crushing the last lone American night

This lack of connection becomes almost a rant in true Springsteen form, especially with the repeated call “I just want to hear some rhythm” to replace the pervasive silence. “Radio Nowhere” is the song for driving fast at night with the windows down and no real destination, other than the rhythm you are searching for. It helps that Springsteen sings about “driving through the misty rain…trying to make a connection with you,” placing it among the dozen or so songs with Bruce behind the wheel. – Linda Levitt

“You’ll Be Comin’ Down”

Bruce Springsteen has rarely sounded as angry as he does on Magic, an album that works as the manifestation of Americans’ rage at the (at the time) seven years of incompetence and cruelty that was the Bush administration. Bruce had gotten angry before, most famously on Born in the U.S.A., but that’s a different kind of anger than the kind that we get with “You’ll Be Comin’ Down.” This isn’t righteous indignation at the injustices the world has inflicted on ordinary people. “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” is a bitter lament, a resignation disguised as a taunt to its subject, whether that would be an ex-lover or the 43rd President of the United States.

Springsteen’s ire has arguably turned as much to the enablers of said ex-chief executive as it is to the man himself. The lyrics, acidic at times in their withering contempt for their target, the anger just barely disguised by the relatively upbeat music. “You’re smiling now but you’ll find out/They’ll use you up and spit you out,” Springsteen sings, and it’s hard not to imagine that he’s talking about working-class Republican voters who routinely vote for ghoulish politicians who, in turn, make their lives harder in order to get richer. This is the sort of invective that could get preachy if not done properly, so Springsteen deploys one of his most reliable songwriting tricks by making “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” a damn catchy song. The chorus is among the best earworms in Springsteen’s repertoire from the time, and its grand swell as it reaches its final payoff fits the arena-sized sound that Springsteen and producer Brendan O’Brien strive for on the album. It’s hard to say how much of this lashing out Springsteen really means, but it does show that, for all of his gifts of showmanship, he’s more than just an arena-friendly crowd pleaser. – Kevin Korber

“Livin’ in the Future”

The release of “Livin’ in the Future” years after the Iraq War had started and the United States had settled into anti-war bewilderment slots it into an interesting position. It was two years after Al Gore scared people shitless with An Inconvenient Truth. And, relevant to the song, it was a year before both the Wall Street crash and Obama’s election. So, if “Livin in the Future” came off as enthusiastic upon first listen, it probably was. America was a year away from getting flipped off its ass. Obama promised hope and delivered only the idea that neoliberalism couldn’t remedy the incessantly bleeding wounds of Iraq and of 9/11.

All of this works in tandem with “Livin’ in the Future”’s abandon. It’s almost farcical how easily it could be taken as a hakuna matata. Instead, Bruce nuzzles in so many branching topics that the track becomes a primer on the state of decay of America. Of similar importance is how hard “Livin’ in the Future” rips. The E Street Band let loose and Springsteen roars with a thick veined conviction. The guitar solo will sear your hands if you touch it too early. Clarence invigorates the soul and pushes the track into the stratosphere. “Livin’ in the Future” overflows with blissful ignorance. It’s easy for the track to sound so carefree because “none of this has happened yet.

Most vital to the song’s endearment is that Springsteen knows we’re all fucked. He leans on violent symbolism to sell that; “My ship Liberty sailed away/On a bloody red horizon/The groundskeeper opened the gates/And let the wild dogs run.” He isn’t suggesting that we push the nation’s dilemmas out of our minds. Those quandaries linger, making us cowboys in ghost towns, wandering without a purpose. The only thing Bruce didn’t know was how the following year would give his words retroactive weight. None of it had happened yet. – Colin Dempsey

“Gypsy Biker”

This song structures itself around the dead body of an American soldier flown home from the Middle East but is more about the aftermath and the community of hometown mourners. ‘Gypsy Biker’ illustrates what happened without explicitly saying it, never laying out the circumstances of the soldier’s death. Instead, it’s a mother pulling up sheets, a drunk brother, a sister with a uniform, and a shared lyric with another Bruce song about a soldier’s return (“Shut Out the Light’). Early on, it places direct blame on the culpable – in this case “speculators” and “profiteers” making money off the Bush administration’s wars regardless of the human toll. The narrator is among the grieving friends and lays out the political rifts that have opened in the town. This whole town’s been rousted / Which side are you on. The arc of the story travels from the graveyard memorial out to the desert.

The friends of the deceased have taken his motorcycle, shined it up, doused it in gas, and set it on fire as a more fitting send off. “We rode her into the foothills/ Bobby brought the gasoline/ We stood ’round her in a circle/ As she lit up the ravine.” Ultimately nothing will bring back the dead and there are no simple answers to the seeming futility of it all. Now all that remains/ Is my love for you brother / Lying still and unchanged/ To them that threw you away/ You ain’t nothing but gone.” “Gypsy Biker” closes with the narrator headed for inebriation or maybe just the open road.

While the album version is plenty ferocious, it was a highlight of the Magic tour. Springsteen and Little Steven traded scorching solos on its outro each night, building it to a near frenzy. The imagery in “Gypsy Biker” is so striking, the feelings of emptiness and anger so visceral, it’s no wonder they poured so much into it. – Casey Neill

“Girls in Their Summer Clothes”

Most of Magic contains a withering intensity and criticism of American circa 2007, with the Iraq War and other policies of the George W. Bush administration castigated by The Boss. But “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” is the one reprieve from the anger on the album. Built on bright and breezy acoustic guitars and a sweeping synth line, it’s a song of vignettes of love and relationships in small towns. Springsteen’s gift for quick, descriptive lines that instantly set you in a place is as strong as ever here. “Kid’s rubber ball smacks/ Off the gutter underneath the lamp light/ Big bank clock chimes/ Off go the sleepy front porch lights,” he sings to craft the scene. As he sits in a diner and contemplates on romance, he sings out, “Love’s a fool’s dance/ I haven’t got much sense but I still got my feet.” It’s a great line of hope told with an “aw, shucks” endearment that keeps Springsteen’s sound grounded.

True, this is bread-and-butter stuff for Springsteen. Even though this is well-worn territory for him, he still succeeds at giving the tune its own perspective and freshness. There’s a lush quality to the arrangement that sounds warmer than most of his work. Combined with a full-throated vocal performance, the tune sounds like a throwback to the 1950s orchestral pop, with some modern touches. Plus, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. While in the past, Springsteen would have been tangled up in romances or liaisons, here, he watches as they “pass me by.” It’s a bittersweet angle that prevents the track from becoming saccharine. This song can almost be seen as a prelude to Western Stars, which would fully embrace the orchestral sound, making some of Springsteen’s strongest music of the 2010s. While it may be slightly out-of-place on Magic, the already-great album is better for the presence of “Girls in Their Summer Clothes.” – Joe Marvilli

“Last to Die”

People who longed for George W. Bush during Donald Trump’s horrific reign as president need just listen to Magic, Springsteen’s scathing rebuke of a leader who took our country into two wars in the Middle East under false pretenses. Times were tense in the mid-‘05s and songs such as “Last to Die” capture these moments when some American citizens thought a few sheets of plastic and some duct tape would save them.

Springsteen often works best on the open road, an avenue that served him as a path to freedom and adventure, but has since grown narrow as the singer’s disillusionment with the country has grown. “We took the highway till the road went black/ We marked Truth or Consequences on our map,” begins the song. This is not a joyride. It’s a place where the highway turns obsidian, a trek headlong towards death.

Springsteen protests the war in Iraq by relying on a voice from the past. In 1971, John Kerry testified in front of the Senate about the Vietnam War and famously asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man die for a mistake?”

The voice of Kerry, who Bush defeated to win re-election in 2004, echoes throughout Springsteen’s song, “the voice from long ago.” Images of blood and death mark Springsteen’s lyrics as “We don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn anymore/ We just stack bodies outside the door.” Even the sun turns into a flaming ball that incinerates a city.

Springsteen could put together an album’s worth of protest songs from his career, but rarely has he sounded as angry and forlorn as on “Last to Die.” The world he paints here is one where the wise men are fools and the tyrants and kings who sacrifice their people will be the last ones to ultimately perish, strung up on city gates as a punishment for their wrongdoing, the last to die for their grand mistake. – David Harris

“Long Walk Home”

In its consideration of homecomings made difficult by social and political circumstances, 2007’s “Long Walk Home” travels in the same orbit as “Born in the U.S.A.” Both songs are upbeat, lively tunes that tell stories far more difficult than the music portrays. Like the 1984 Springsteen classic, “Long Walk Home” presents the idea of returning home to find a familiar feeling but in a place where everything is irrevocably changed. In the opening verse, the speaker laments:

“I could smell the same deep green of summer, above me the same night sky was glowing in the distance / I could see the town where I was born”. Seeing home in the distance does not readily equate with a return to the values of community referred to later in the song.

When “Long Walk Home” was released as a single from the Magic album, Springsteen spoke about how the song reflected his disaffection with life during the Bush administration. The speaker returns home, walking past old haunts like Sal’s grocery and the barber shop. That he sees neither familiar nor friendly faces signals the distance between where he is–both geographically and psychically–and where he hopes to be. The music video wistfully intersperses images of a barbershop with a man and a child on an amusement park ride, calling to mind the Asbury Park Boardwalk, as well as with shots of Springsteen alone in an empty diner and in a performance space. After more than forty years of producing and performing, Springsteen’s unbreakable connection to the Jersey shore resonates for listeners, helping to establish the longing for home with those scenes.

Clarence Clemons’s saxophone was always distinctly poignant and his solos on “Long Walk Home” are no exception. Listening to his performance on this track is bittersweet ten years after the “Big Man’s” death, yet a sax solo is a masterful touch to the emotional power of a Springsteen song. – Linda Levitt

“Devil’s Arcade”

“Devil’s Arcade” is an observation that doesn’t require subtlety. System of the Down put it as, “Why don’t presidents fight the war?/ Why do they always send the poor?” As always, though, Springsteen is more interested in the man with his feet on the ground rather than the shadows cast from pedestals. Through swaying violins and swirling undertones Springsteen defines the true cost of warfare.

The song’s humanity comes from the intimacy of all the tokens of life in the devil’s arcade, from a heartbeat to the feeling of a lover’s lips to the simple morning sunshine, all moments taken for granted as soldiers marched as “heroes” for those so disengaged from conflict that it’s become a game. Springsteen laments how the suits will never know the feeling of nights haunted by grief; “You sleep and you dream, your buddies Charlie and James/And wake with a thick desert dust on your skin.

“Devil’s Arcade” is about the rift between war mongers and their footsoldiers, and how the latter are the ones forced to cope. Springsteen looks at the little man to show the crushing weight of the big man. He, and everyone else, loses something. Even in the closing refrain, where Springsteen hints that he’ll scale one more summit and overindulge on sentimentality, he instead whispers, and the E Street Band restrain themselves accordingly. They know that to climb anymore would be too syrupy. So, they don’t. They lay in the bed they made and their message permeates through patience. It resonates instead of aggressing. “Devil’s Arcade” has almost 15 years of marinating, offering a personal panoramic view of the similarities between a pawn and a soldier and the gulf between a knight and a king. – Colin Dempsey

“The Wrestler”

Springsteen’s songs have always had a cinematic quality to them, often cribbing his titles from classic oaters and Noir obscurities. The reverse has also been true with movie titles, and even entire movie plots, based off of his songs. Bruce has written some gems specifically for movie soundtracks and “The Wrestler” stands with “Streets of Philadelphia” and “Light of Day” as one of the best.

In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke plays a beaten down pro wrestler trading on the remnants of his fame on a lower tier circuit in New Jersey. The song operates independently of that specific story, instead describing anyone who has aged out of a physically brutal job and has the aches and pains to show for it. The metaphors at work are a one-legged dog, a one trick pony, a dilapidated scarecrow, a one-armed man punching at the breeze, and a one legged man dancing. It’s not a narrative and works more as a broad description of grit in the face of injury and adversity. The emotional knockout in the song comes in the bridge “These things that have comforted me, I drive away/ This place that is my home I cannot stay/ My only faith’s in the broken bones and bruises I display.”

This song was also tacked on as a bonus track to 2009’s Working on a Dream. This song’s chorus uses the repeated phrase “I Come and Stand at Every Door” – also the title of a Pete Seeger song adapted from a poem by Turkish writer Nâzım Hikmet Ran about the bombing of Hiroshima. Springsteen’s song is about one man’s journey and not at all about a cataclysmic act of war. But in its own small way, it too asks the listener to bear witness. – Casey Neill

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