Monday, April 25, 2005

Dan DeLuca: The Thoughtful, Storytelling Boss is Back

Posted on Sun, Apr. 24, 2005

Music clips Devils & Dust

Album Review
By Dan DeLuca
Philadelphia Inquirer Music Critic

There'll be no "Bruuuuuuce"-ing this time around.

Devils & Dust, Bruce Springsteen's 13th studio album, is not a rollicking ride down the highway in search of communal salvation with the E Street Band.

Instead, Devils & Dust (Columbia ***), which comes out Tuesday, is in keeping with the Springsteen pattern of following arena-size rock records with scaled-back, more intimate efforts that place his characters in at-risk, if not desperate, situations.

So - if this were an SAT analogy - the sepia-toned Devils & Dust is to The Rising, the Boss' rousing 2002 response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as Nebraska was to The River, and as Tunnel of Love was to Born in the U.S.A.

"I was signed as a guy with an acoustic guitar," Springsteen points out on the DVD side of the album, which features him performing and talking about five songs. The album is being released in the new DualDisc format, the music industry's attempt to package CDs with visuals and combat Internet file-sharing.

On Devils & Dust, he's that guy again - as he will be when he plays the sold-out Tower Theatre, solo, on May 17. Every one of the album's 12 songs is augmented by other musicians. Producer Brendan O'Brien, who also helmed The Rising, plays bass (as well as sitar and hurdy-gurdy) and is joined by Steve Jordan on drums on the handful of forceful, uptempo tracks.

Even such austere cuts as "Reno" - about a man's soul-killing visit to a prostitute - are textured with subtle touches of strings, horns and keyboards. (That song earned D&D a "this song contains some adult imagery" label, and qualifies it as the first Springsteen album you might want to hide from the kids.)

But D&D is, essentially, a solo album. The title song, an authoritative Dust Bowl ballad complete with harmonica rack, sets the stage. Written shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it's sung in the voice of an American soldier who's been placed, as Springsteen says on an episode of VH1's Storytellers that airs this week, "in a situation where your choices are untenable - and the price that inflicts in blood and spirit."

The crux of the album hangs in the chorus of "Devils and Dust," which asks about the cost of compromised ideals: "I got God on my side / I'm just trying to survive / What if what you do to survive kills the things you love?"

Springsteen - who actively worked for Sen. John Kerry in last year's presidential election - then goes on to critique the U.S. government for using fear to manipulate its citizens: "Fear's a powerful thing / It can turn your heart black you can trust / It'll take your God-filled soul / And fill it with devils and dust."

That's as pointed, politically, as Devils & Dust gets. Anyone expecting an album full of protest songs will be disappointed. By leading last year's Vote for Change tour, Springsteen undoubtedly alienated many longtime fans and risked having the human drama of his songs reduced to campaign fodder.

So the 55-year-old father of three is shrewd to keep the emphasis on the personal, rather than the political, in his empathetic tales of Mexican immigrants, beaten-down boxers, and working-stiff parents. The low-key approach means, too, that commercial expectations are modest: If Springsteen's audience has fallen off, it won't be noticeable until he makes his next outsized rock record.

No anthemic choruses

Going back to "Badlands," Springsteen protagonists are always looking for the faith that can save them. And the characters on D&D - who include the Son of God Himself in "Jesus Was an Only Son," a gospel processional about a mother about to lose her child - are no different. It's just that they don't go looking for it by belting out anthemic choruses with the Big Man by their side.

Which is not to say that Devils & Dust doesn't have its share of catchy tunes. For almost every severe ballad rife with desert imagery of dried blood and bone, there's an energetic toe-tapper: the heart-swelling love song "Leah," the country-flavored "Maria's Bed," and, most intriguingly, the infectious "All I'm Thinkin' About," in which Springsteen sings in a falsetto reminiscent of Canned Heat's "Going Up the Country."

That's the main difference between the new album and The Ghost of Tom Joad, the 1996 folkie Springsteen disc that Devils & Dust will be frequently compared to. Many of the D&D songs were written during the Tom Joad tour.

And much of D&D shares Tom Joad's whispery, ghostly feel. The closing track, "Matamoros Banks," revisits the earlier album's "Across the Border." The new song tells of a failed river crossing in reverse order, to spine-tingling effect. In the first verse, our hero is already dead: "Your clothes give way to the current and river stone / Till every trace of who you ever were is gone." But at the song's end, he is fully alive with the dream that will soon do him in.

Like homework

Tom Joad, though, was so ascetic in its approach that it felt like calculus homework. It was as if the Boss - who refers to himself jokingly on VH1's surprisingly relaxed Storytellers episode as "that holier-than-thou bastard"- wanted us all to don the same hairshirt he'd pulled out of his Woody Guthrie closet.

Devils & Dust doesn't completely avoid Joad's pitfalls. Both "The Hitter" and "Black Cowboys" are impressive, short stories in song. But I couldn't make out what Springsteen was singing about until I read the lyrics. And last I checked, music was meant to be heard, not read.

For the most part, though, Devils & Dust succeeds in leavening despair with hope, and mixing dirges with buoyant songs you might even be tempted to sing along with. Springsteen is a dogged character, a lot like the backsliding family man in "Long Time Comin', " who vows, with a third child on the way, "I ain't gonna [screw] it up this time."

With Devils & Dust, the hard working troubadour has granted himself a Tom Joad do-over. And this time, he hasn't screwed it up.

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or Read his recent work at

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