Bruce Springsteen: Devils And Dust
Sound/Style: semi-dark, lyric-driven folk with heavy country influences
By Steve Morley
Springsteen’s last release, The Rising, was an immediate response to the terrorist attacks in America on September 11, 2001, typical of the epic-sized themes he routinely tackles. Only the faintest thread connects that album to his new disc, Devils And Dust, a collection of songs that finds The Boss restraining both his leather-lunged howl and his normally outspoken politics and digging deep into the souls of finely drawn characters from various walks of life. The title track is presumably set in present-day Iraq, where an American soldier identifies terror itself as the most divisive enemy of all: "Fear’s a dangerous thing/It can turn your heart black, you can trust/It’ll take your God-filled soul/Fill it with devils and dust." The young man goes on to confess "I’ve got my finger on the trigger, but tonight faith just ain’t enough," despite his earlier – and possibly ironic – assertion that he’s got God on his side. The soldier’s statement that "every woman and every man want to take a righteous stand" somehow rings hollow, suggesting that, between the lines, Springsteen is perhaps questioning whether a war can be justified by spiritual principles – a notion furthered by the young recruit’s failure to find a source of strength to sustain him in battle. At any rate, the songwriter is laying unusually low on this hot-button issue, leaving listeners to draw their own conclusions.
The sparse title tune and several other similarly rough-hewn cuts are underpinned with cinematic-sounding orchestral backdrops, highlighting the dramatic content of Springsteen’s literate vignettes and effectively separating singer from song as well as adding considerable sonic substance to what might otherwise emerge as stock (if well above average) Americana-styled fare. As a result, the sound resides outside of easy categorizations of "folk," "rock" or "country," though the latter style is noticeably present in the reappearing twang of fiddle, dobro and pedal steel guitar. Which alternate with Hammond organ, harmonica and female vocal backgrounds both pulsating and ethereal. The combination works well, giving the artist’s latest work a maturity befitting an aging rocker, though the drawl he employs here takes some getting used to. Both lyrically and musically, the New Jersey native wanders far from familiar turf on many of the disc’s dozen tracks, using his country-inflected arrangements to evoke points further south, from Oklahoma to the Mexican border. In them, he depicts economically challenged minority figures who attempt to find better lives with results ranging from tentative to tragic. If Springsteen’s liberal views crouch covertly in such songs, his well-wrought characterizations and settings leave an echo of real lives and palpable pathos that place the focus more on humanity than issues. Still, the portrayals challenge minds that may deny the inextricable connection between the two.
The record’s less somber material revisits the lower-middle-class losers that peopled Springsteen’s earlier work, and shows them on the verge of making personal – and possibly spiritual – breakthroughs. In "Leah," a man expresses an urge to "build me a house on higher ground (and) find me a world where love’s the only sound," and to find meaning in marital unity: "I wanna live in the same house, beneath the same roof/Sleep in the same bed, search for the same proof as Leah." A more penetrating look into the heart of perhaps the same man is offered in "Long Time Comin’," in which two separate verses combine to tell the tale of a man trying to break free from the sins –specifically, the utter failure – of his father: "My daddy he was just a stranger/Lived in a hotel downtown/When I was a kid he was just somebody I’d see around/Now down below and pullin’ on my shirt, I got some kids of my own/Well, if I had one wish in this god-forsaken world, kids, it’d be that your mistakes would be your own/Yeah, your sins would be your own." Before the waning light of a campfire with his family sleeping nearby, he ponders the impending birth of his next child and vows to "get birth naked and bury my old soul and dance on its grave." No evidence is given that these men succeed, leaving only a well-etched sense of their longing for something more than mere existence.
Maternal relationships and images reoccur throughout the record, as well as man’s search for surrogates both suitable and unsuitable. In both "Jesus Was An Only Son" and "The Hitter," a graphic autobiography of a fighter whose clenched fists are his sole asset, the conclusion is drawn that a mother – whether well-meaning or negligent – cannot ultimately save her child from experiencing pain. In "Reno," which contains the disc’s most shocking scenario, Springsteen forces the listener to witness a gritty, explicitly drawn transaction between a prostitute and her customer. The controversial track is hardly one-dimensional – in the end, the utter, sickening emptiness of the experience is exposed – but it is nonetheless difficult to justify Springsteen’s foray into the realm of pornography. While the emotional component of the song could conceivably penetrate the hearts of those who are hardened to such images, it profoundly mars an otherwise stirring set of music and incisive character studies. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Springsteen’s masterfully vivid writing on Devils And Dust provides nearly as many pictures; some, however, are ones you may wish you hadn’t seen.
Warning: This CD contains obscenity and mature themes
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.