In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Songs with “radio” in the title.
After roaring back into the popular consciousness with The Rising, Bruce Springsteen proceeded to embark on arguably the most prolific musical decade of his career, both with and without the E Street Band. But it also saw the dawn of a more somber Springsteen, a far cry from the broadly smiling, charming-as-hell rascal who racked up some of the biggest songs and albums of the late ’70s and ’80s. This older and more reflective Boss—hinted at in ’90s tracks like “Streets Of Philadelphia”—was somewhat unfairly burdened by the weight of expectations. The Rising suffered from its struggle to be the musical response to 9/11, meaning that some very good songs were saddled by the ponderous weight of his position as America’s red, white, and blue chronicler of the working man. His follow-up record, Devils & Dust, doubled down on this solemnity, a collection of mostly quieter and more searching songs, meditative and haunted. And while his collection of folk tunes and traditionals popularized by Pete Seeger (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions) felt like a well-deserved clearing out the cobwebs, the set of covers wasn’t Springsteen, not really. Not the Bruce we all knew, or liked to pretend we knew.
So when Magic was released in 2007, it wasn’t just a great album—it was the sound of a great rock ’n’ roll musician remembering how to lighten up. The themes and lyrical content was just as heavy as always, if not more so, with songs about death, loss, and the wars America was still waging on multiple fronts (“Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?” might be the most on-the-nose refrain Springsteen’s ever written/borrowed). But all that darkness and foreboding was fused with music that refused to be bound in the same mire in which the album’s narrators were stuck. “Livin’ In The Future” swings with the groove of a “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” and “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” is practically Beach Boys-esque with its major-chord melodies. Bruce still dug deeply as always, but his concerns were leavened by music that felt celebratory and loose-limbed, and imbued with newfound energy.
And kicking off this return to form is “Radio Nowhere,” Magic’s first single and one of the most straightforward and four-on-the-floor rockers that Springsteen and the E Street Band have done since Born In The U.S.A. An up-and-down guitar riff leads into a churn of strings and keys, anchored by a thumping rhythm that is maybe the loosest vibe the increasingly stolid Max Weinberg has achieved in recent years. The lyrics are classic Boss: a guy driving alone through desolate stretches of America, searching for some connection through his radio dial, and only coming up with static. “This is radio nowhere / Is there anybody alive out there?” he asks, before the repeated cry of “I just want to hear some rhythm” comes barreling through the refrain. It sounds urgent, but more importantly, it sounds just a little bit raw. And for a perfectionist like Bruce Springsteen, sometimes the best thing that can happen is a little old-fashioned, rough-around-the-edges rock ’n’ roll.