Monday, April 25, 2005

Jon Pareles: Bruce Almighty

April 24, 2005
The New York Times


When Bruce Springsteen talks about his new album, he can sound more like a preacher than a rock star. Soul and spirit, God and family; that's what's on his mind in the quiet, folky songs on "Devils & Dust" (Columbia). He sings, reverently, about Jesus and his mother, Mary; he also sings about a man with a hooker in a hotel room.

"I like to write about people whose souls are in danger, who are at risk," Mr. Springsteen said. At rehearsals for a solo tour that starts on Monday in Detroit, he and his crew were fine-tuning technical details here at the Paramount Theater, the faded movie palace at the Asbury Park Convention Hall.

"In every song on this record," he added, "somebody's in some spiritual struggle between the worst of themselves and the best of themselves, and everybody comes out in a slightly different place. That thread runs through the record, and it's what gives the record its grounding in the spirit."

In a way, "Devils & Dust" is Mr. Springsteen's family-values album, filled with reflections on God, motherhood and the meaning of home. It arrives at a moment when pop is filled with shout-outs to God from rockers as diverse as U2, Los Lonely Boys, Ryan Cabrera and Prince, and when evangelical Christian conservatism seeks mainstream clout.

It might seem that with "Devils & Dust," Mr. Springsteen is making his own offering to an America in which the rhetoric of moral values has grown so vehement and divisive. He did, after all, back the losing candidate in the 2004 elections. Actually, most of the songs on "Devils & Dust" - even the jaunty "All the Way Home," which begins, "I know what it's like to have failed, baby/With the whole world lookin' on" - were written nearly a decade ago, and Mr. Springsteen, 55, said he was working by instinct when he chose to resurrect them for this album. "It's both not connected to the chronology, and yet it always is," he mused. "The canary in the coal mine - that's a pretty good artistic model."

Mr. Springsteen's last album was "The Rising," his response to Sept. 11. It re-established him as America's conscience, questioner and consoler, and gave him his most resounding commercial success since the 1980's. The album sold two million copies, and Mr. Springsteen and the E Street Band barnstormed arenas and stadiums, selling out nationwide.

All of that made Mr. Springsteen's endorsement of Senator John F. Kerry for president more striking. Before the 2004 elections, Mr. Springsteen had supported causes rather than candidates: Vietnam veterans, food banks, the magazine DoubleTake. But with this election, Mr. Springsteen chose to spend some of the credibility he had built over a career of singing about people left out of the American dream, and burnished with "The Rising." He and his band not only headlined the Vote for Change tour in fall 2004; Mr. Springsteen also took his acoustic guitar and literally embraced Senator Kerry at 11th-hour campaign rallies. Then came George W. Bush's re-election. "I had a couple of weeks where it was like, ah, Patti had to peel me off the wall," he said, referring to his wife, Patti Scialfa. "And then it was onward and upward. But it was something I was glad I did."

Was he worried about losing fans who disagreed with his politics? "That was a thing where you sort of let the chips fall where they may," he said. "And you get some nasty letters, and people get angry. But the fans that I've had over the years, well, I perceive it as a big relationship, and a flexible one."

The personal, political and spiritual merge in the new album's title song. Mr. Springsteen wrote "Devils & Dust" shortly after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and he considered using it to open his sets at the Vote for Change tour. (In the end, he decided to play "The Star-Spangled Banner" instead.)

The narrator of "Devils & Dust" could be a soldier in Iraq or America itself. He sings, "I got my finger on the trigger/But I don't know who to trust," and "I got God on my side/I'm just trying to survive." Then he wonders: "What if what you do to survive/Kills the things you love." The music is a subdued cousin of songs like "Tougher Than the Rest," and while it's easy to imagine a gleaming E Street Band arrangement, it's also obvious why Mr. Springsteen chose to make his narrator sound so alone.

After each blockbuster in his career, Mr. Springsteen has made a shift from booming rock to somber storytelling, from extroverted to pensive. "I like writing pop songs, and I like the band playing loud, and I enjoy playing big places," he said. "But there's something about when an audience comes in, and it's just them, and it's just you."

The direct forerunner of "Devils & Dust" is "The Ghost of Tom Joad," the album Mr. Springsteen recorded largely alone in 1995, full of Woody Guthrie-style ballads about immigrants and displaced workers. Many of the songs on "Devils & Dust" were written about the same time.
"Tom Joad" was downbeat, admirable for its terse, compassionate narratives but singlemindedly bleak. "Devils & Dust" allows itself good times as well as hard ones, love songs between tough predicaments, and it has touches of country along with the spirit of Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

The album's songs don't just observe characters; they reach inside. "Most of the songs on the record, you're listening to someone think," Mr. Springsteen said. Where "Tom Joad" was full of reportorial detail, the songs on "Devils & Dust" dissolve into memories and visionary images. One, "Matamoros Banks," tells the story of a drowned illegal immigrant in reverse. Starting with his body floating in the river and ending with his eagerness to rejoin his lover, the song turns sorrow into hope.

The music shares that reflective tone. Mr. Springsteen recorded nearly all of the songs in a few days, nearly a decade ago, sitting with his guitar in the living room of his farmhouse in New Jersey, doing just a take or two. In the haunting "Silver Palomino," the death of a boy's mother connects him to the apparition of a beautiful, untouchable horse; as in an old folk song, the song's meter never settles on a steady beat. A second take might have pinned it down.

"The minute I get the essence of something, I try to stop," Mr. Springsteen said. "If I go back to re-record, sometimes I can hear the thinking a little more." Last year, he gathered the old recordings and worked with the producer Brendan O'Brien so that the accompaniments - a slide guitar, a string section, distant voices - float up from within like phantoms. The lead vocals are gentle, deliberately avoiding the heroic voice that Mr. Springsteen uses with the E Street Band. And in two songs, he switches to a voice he has used only fleetingly before: a ghostly falsetto.

Thoughts of redemption, moral choices and invocations of God have been part of Springsteen songs throughout his career, but they have grown stronger and more explicitly Christian on his 21st-century albums. "It was something I pushed off for a long time," he said, "but I've been thinking about it a lot lately." He has a trinity of reasons for his connection to Christian imagery and concepts: "Catholic school, Catholic school, Catholic school," he said. "You're indoctrinated. It's a none-too subtle form of brainwashing, and of course, it works very well."

Mr. Springsteen grew up half a block away from his Catholic church, convent and rectory. "I'm not a churchgoer," he said, "but I realized, as time passed, that my music is filled with Catholic imagery. It's not a negative thing. There was a powerful world of potent imagery that became alive and vital and vibrant, and was both very frightening and held out the promise of ecstasies and paradise. There was this incredible internal landscape that they created in you."

"As I got older, I got a lot less defensive about it," he continued. "I thought, I've inherited this particular landscape and I can build it into something of my own. I've been back to the church on many occasions, and I have a lot of friendships with priests. And I've been to the convent where the nuns now give me beer, which they have in the refrigerator. I don't think they had that when I was going to school there."

The album includes "Jesus Was an Only Son," a hymnlike song about Mary's love that ends with Jesus consoling her, saying, "Remember the soul of the universe/Willed a world and it appeared." But "Devils & Dust" also includes "Reno," which has lyrics explicit enough to prompt a warning on the album package that it "contains some adult imagery." Its narrator visits a prostitute who resembles his ex-lover, only to feel more desolate afterward.

"He's in this room with this proxy because he couldn't handle the real thing," Mr. Springsteen said. "The physicality, the sexual content of the song was important, because casual sex is kind of closing the book of you. It's ecstasy, and it's release. Sex with somebody you love is opening the book of you, which is always a risky and frightening read."

The other kind of love on "Devils & Dust" is maternal and filial. Half the songs on the album, like "Jesus Was an Only Son," ponder relationships between mothers and sons. Mr. Springsteen has written often about his uneasy ties to his father, who died in 1998, but rarely about his mother, who is still, he said, "alive and kicking."

In "Black Cowboys," a ghetto teenager leaves his mother and her drug-dealer boyfriend and heads west; in "The Hitter," a broken-down boxer shows up at his mother's door and begs her to let him in. And in "Long Time Comin,' " a man feels his pregnant wife's belly and hopes, for his children, that "your mistakes would be your own/Yea your sins would be your own," once again connecting family and faith.

"Pete Townshend said that rock music was one of the big spiritual movements of the second half of the 20th century," Mr. Springsteen said. "It is medicinal and it does address your spirit, there's no two ways about it. And it came out of the church. Who were the first frontmen? The preachers!"

Onstage at the Paramount, Mr. Springsteen ran through new songs and old ones as crew members tuned guitars, tinkered with reverb settings and made sure that the right harmonica was in the neck rack. A keyboardist named Fitz worked on sounds that would waft mysteriously through some of the songs. Guitar in hand, Mr. Springsteen started fingerpicking the introduction to "Black Cowboys." Looking out at the lone spectator, he said, "I tell a really touching story here," and chuckled, adding, "I hope."

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