Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, the twin peaks of American rock'n'roll, have lately fallen into a rhythm. Last April the pair released protest albums at the same time, Young making pleas to 'impeach the president' on Living with War, while Springsteen, on We Shall Overcome, reworked some Pete Seeger anthems that had involved a previous American adventure abroad.
Now both have chosen the same month to release studio albums that mark a return to roots. For Magic, Springsteen is back with the E-Street Band for the first time since The Rising five years ago, while Young, for Chrome Dreams II, has reassembled old friends like Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina and steel guitarist Ben Keith from Harvest days. This retrenchment seems highly conscious in both cases, a taking of stock. Young recorded his album at a garage studio in Redwood City, California, which features vintage petrol pumps on the forecourt and well-worn recording equipment inside. Springsteen put Magic together down south in Atlanta.
Listening to the results side by side, you are reminded of how, more than any of their contemporaries, more than shape-shifting Dylan, Young and Springsteen have always traded primarily in authenticity, and how they have come at that virtue from entirely different directions. Young has won his integrity by always following his eccentric muse, and forever testing his audience's faith; Springsteen by never letting his ego get in the way of the music, always putting in a full shift for his fans. Young has been 'Shakey' so long, true to an ever-wavering sense of self and belief, that it has often seemed that only his guitar keeps him upright. The values formed in Asbury Park, New Jersey have been Springsteen's consistent touchstone. Young has been a hippie and a supporter of Ronald Reagan; Springsteen has never taken a narcotic and has never stopped doing union benefits.
As songwriters, they are both interpreters of the common American man, but Young, the son of a Canadian sportswriter, has always dramatised himself as the outsider, looking on, wearing his angst as a badge of honour; Springsteen, whose father was a bus driver, rarely recognises a distinction between himself and his subjects; his voice suggests they win together and they lose together. They are both obsessed by the American road but Young sees it in Kerouac's sense, with no particular end in sight; Springsteen comes at it through Steinbeck, as the way back home. You can hear this stand-off in their harmonicas; Young's always sounds like it is played in a howling desert, Springsteen's asks for a campfire or a back-room bar.
Either side of 60 - Young is three years Springsteen's elder at 61 - both have produced classic albums in their own image. Chrome Dreams II grows out of a familiar Young legend. It is the sequel to a record that was never made. (Chrome Dreams, scheduled for release in 1977, is one of several ghost ships in his archive, victim of a sudden shift in obsession.) It is characterised by its absence of coherence. The opening three tracks were first recorded in the Eighties or were occasionally performed live then; they, along with what follows, are a tentative kind of primer in Young's catalogue of the past 40 years, veering suddenly from the grungy guitar of 'Dirty Old Man' (I'm a dirty old man, I do what I can/ I like to get hammered on Friday night') to the saccharine gospel of 'Shining Light', which is Young in best bed-wetting mode, with the kind of simpleton falsetto ('shine light, you always show me, you always guide me') that only he can get away with.
The 12 tracks are held together by two things: a tremulous kind of optimism that sometimes extends to a dippy faith - an antidote to the righteous anger of Young's last, political outing; and by the 18-minute epic 'Ordinary People', which Young defiantly plans to release as a single.
Backed with the gusto of big horns, Young's guitar is once again a thing of wonder on this track, now slashing and burning, now playing transcendent dance riffs. The song itself, dating back nearly 20 years, is a tracking shot of the margins of American working life, of the kind Springsteen has made home territory. Young invests it with more alienation, producing a sort of paranoiac 'Penny Lane': there's a man 'dealing antiques in a hardware store... with five pit bulls inside, just a warning to the people'. Young can catalogue American individuals, like a latter-day Walt Whitman, but always in the context of a song of himself. 'Everyday people, I got faith in the regular kind,' he wails, but it's more in desperation than hope.
One of his strategies to save himself from despair is to employ something that Springsteen has never properly risked: little fragments of comedy. Young finds it in the nursery rhyme bathos of the splendid 'Ever After' which offsets a Hank Williams mood with a classic Young piece of wisdom: 'A man had many boxes/ And he liked them quite a lot/ But they would not be opened / 'Cause the value would be shot.' And he suggests it, too, in the surreal comfort blanket of the album's pay-off, 'The Way', in which the plinking of Young's piano and the piping voices of the Young People's Chorus of New York City are reminiscent of 'There's No One Quite Like Grandma' and St Winifred's School Choir: 'This is the way, we know the way, we've found the way' trill the choristers as the troubled Pied Piper Young leads them along some primrose path to who knows where.
There aren't laughs on Magic, or even many surprises. Springsteen's songs are all new, and they all seem to come from almost exactly the same place. Magic is an uptempo rock album, back to the basics of love lost and found and smalltown tragedy after the overt rabble rousing of the past three years that began with his Vote for Change tour around the election of 2004. Springsteen has always been a lyricist capable of achingly great lines, but as ever he uses them sparingly; you are lulled with plenty of 'Your world keeps turning round and round' before you get a 'Pour me a drink Theresa in one of those glasses you dust off/ And I'll watch the bones on your back like the Stations of the Cross.'
There are no 18-minute tracks on this album. Springsteen does not wilfully try patience. There is, though, also a lack of genuine event; some songs will only come alive on stage. This sense of 'and the next, and the next', is partly redeemed by the lust and energy that Springsteen still finds with his band, in particular the testosterone sax of the great Clarence Clemons. There are one or two tracks that might eventually stand up alongside 'Glory Days', 'Your Own Worst Enemy', say, or 'Long Walk Home', though nothing with the heart of Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad. This album is, as the Boss announces on the opening track 'Radio Nowhere', about 'finding his way home' after a few years of excursions into other territory. 'Is there anybody alive out there? I just want to hear some rhythm...' You can picture the arms raised in response.
The title track, 'Magic', suggests how easy this rhythm has become for this band: 'I got a coin in my pocket, I can make it disappear/ I got a card up my sleeve I'll pull it out your ear' - but that doesn't make it any less energising a sound. And one thing Springsteen does share with Young is that his years of sincerity allow him to pull off the big sentimental finale, though this one could hardly be further from 'The Way'. 'Terry's Song' was a late addition to the album written for Frank 'Terry' Magovern, Springsteen's personal assistant for 23 years, who died in July. It is, unlike much of the album, one from the heart, with a refrain - 'when they built you brother, they broke the mould' - that proves there is still no cliche yet written from which Springsteen's voice can't wrench full-scale pathos.
Download:'Ordinary People'; 'Ever After' (Chrome Dreams II); 'Terry's Song'; 'Magic' (Magic)