Bruce Springsteen – Devils & Dust

Music Reviews Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen – Devils & Dust

After months of campaigning tirelessly for a Kerry/Edwards victory, praying hard over cold black coffee, lashing flags to guitar strings, wailing and riffing and huffing ’til his heart damn near burst, Bruce Springsteen spent the night of November 2 watching his hoped-for America disintegrate into a small, sad pile of—what else?—Devils & Dust.

The resulting record, Springsteen’s 19th, sees America’s reigning pop-folksinger regressing, searching frantically for a way to reclaim the country he (and John Kerry) unceremoniously lost last fall. And while Springsteen may be desperate to salvage the slab of land that’s been the spiritual and emotional nexus of almost every epic he’s penned, the jilted partner he’s skewered and re-romanced hundreds of times over the last three decades, the central question of Devils & Dust remains: Is it real?

Hookers in Reno, fields of blood and stone, last calls, homemade maps, kids cocooned in sleeping bags, silver palominos, blind men waving by the side of the road: Devils & Dust is a roadtrip through an America untouched by contemporary homogenization—anti-corporate and illusory, more like a Robert Frank photograph or a snippet from On the Road than anything from your own backyard.

Springsteen has a long, celebrated history of channeling personal defeat into indubitable fight songs, and Devils & Dust is Bruce at his best and worst—apologetic and disillusioned, brave and steadfast, disengaged and hopeful. Opener “Devils and Dust” spotlights Springsteen’s spare acoustic strums and gorgeously worn growls (think 1982’s impeccable Nebraska). Head down and hands in pockets, Bruce bellows staid Guthrie-like proclamations. It’s impossibly earnest, so sober you can hear the streaks of dirt on his Levi’s, feel the curl of his beard. Alone and unnerved, Springsteen bemoans the plight of a man without any viable options: “I’ve got my finger on the trigger,” he rumbles. “But I don’t know who to trust.”

Alas, the album’s title track proves an unmerciful tease. Ninety seconds into it, tense drums start to quake, keyboards pound and superstar producer Brendan O’Brien (the knob twiddler behind ’90s alt-rock heroes Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, as well as 2002’s The Rising) gestures for strings, leaving Bruce and his spit-addled harmonica to contend with gooey violin waves and bombastic, made-for-arena swells. The effect should be majestic, but instead it just feels false. Ultimately “Devils and Dust” somersaults from humble and inspiring to horribly puffed-up, bloated with self-importance, wholly divorced from the rousing, epic clamor of early masterpieces “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run.” It makes depressing sense, then, when a dry-throated Springsteen laments to a faceless Bob (Dylan, presumably): “We’re a long, long way from home, Bobbie / Home’s a long, long way from us.” Or, later, when he muses: “What if what you do to survive / Kills the things you love?”

“All The Way Home” fares better under O’Brien’s heavy hand, packed tight with butt-twitching hollers of “Woo!”—it’s classic, Born in the U.S.A.-era Boss, dressed up with wailing steel guitar, stunningly discordant electric sarangi (an Indian fiddle), and persuasive invitations to dance (“Now it’s some old Stones song the band is trashin’ / But if you feel like dancin’ / Baby, I’m askin’”).

Inching strings are back for the grim, prostitute-starring “Reno” (even O’Brien can’t pretty up a graphic menu of sexual entreés and their inevitable consumption), while the excellent “Maria’s Bed” sees Springsteen’s scratchy pipes hopping up to a weird quasi-falsetto, backed by a chorus of na-na-ing background singers and big, pounding drums.

The falsetto returns (thin, shrill and wholly disembodied) for “All I’m Thinkin’ About,” which finds the Boss straining and crackling, wiggling away from his deep, much-beloved rumble and mewing in disguise. Surprisingly, the tune succeeds, despite its cracks and squinty stretches—by eschewing his trademark roar (and the gravity that inevitably goes along with it), Springsteen frees himself up for a light-hearted stomp, full of longing and giggly delight.

Spectacular closer “Matamoros Banks” recounts the death of an illegal immigrant attempting to cross the Rio Grande, moving backwards from his corpse (“The turtles eat the skin from your eyes / So they lay open to the stars”) to his hope-heavy desert dreams (“I sleep and dream of holding you in my arms again”), laid out over tender guitar, wisps of dobro, and—is anyone remotely surprised?—yawning strings.

Springsteen’s lyrics are no longer infused with the giddy wordplay he’s wielded on past albums, but, oddly, the liner notes still periodically offer glib footnotes to his verse (for “Reno,” this means not only English translations of the three Spanish words used in the song, but also a “This Song Contains Adult Imagery” disclaimer for anxiously vigilant parents). And while Bruce and company seem increasingly worried that no one will get it, Devils & Dust is remarkably self-contained and perfectly linear: here is the aftermath of The Rising, when the plains go quiet, the windows shut and we pray, pause, and plot our next move.

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