Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Newsweek: Still the Boss


On his new album, Springsteen again eschews his foot-stomping arena rock and continues to evolve as a story-teller

WEB EXCLUSIVE
By Susannah Meadows
Newsweek
Updated: 1:09 p.m. ET April 23, 2005

April 23 - There are two Bruce Springsteens. There’s the rousing E Street Band guy. And there’s the quiet story-teller. Many fans go for both, but each Bruce inspires his own exclusive devotees.
The first one’s diehards are in it for the life-affirming romp, the second group prefers a softer voice and louder truths. The first camp knows the words to “Jungleland” and has an inexplicable thing for Clarence Clemons. The second got hooked on the stripped-down “Nebraska” record and thinks the E-Street-free “Tunnel of Love”—about Springsteen’s first marriage falling apart—may be his best album. Springsteen’s latest album may not get the “fun” Bruce crowd out of their seats. But, for those of us in the second camp, this record is what we’re here for.

“Devils & Dust” is quiet Bruce's best self . It’s almost as if the rest has been practice. On this record the lyricism of 1995's “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is informed by the high production value of 2002's “The Rising.” And though “Devils & Dust” isn’t long on melody, the music itself is often pretty, fleshed out with Bruce’s crisp slide guitar, Soozie Tyrell’s plaintive fiddle, and an occasional sitar. Unlike E Street collaborations, where the instruments all sound piled on top of one another, there’s enough room in these songs to be able to hear each musician at work. As a result, the sound of this album is certainly familiar, but it’s more adventurous and satisfying than Bruce’s usual fare.

He's tuned up his lyric-writing as well, bringing what he’s been doing his whole career forward with a running leap. If in the past he relied too often on some of the same metaphors of the highway or a car—or a car on the highway—here he seems determined to tell fresh stories with evocative imagery. “The sun bloodied the sky and sliced through the hotel blinds,” he sings in “Reno.” And in “All the Way Home,” he says “I know what it’s like to have soared and come crashin’ like a drunk on a bar room floor.”

And things have gotten more complicated for all his characters. Springsteen lends his voice to a fighter who wants to come home, a boy who leaves his drug-addicted mother, a Mexican man drowned crossing the Rio Grande. Springsteen is busy dispensing dignity to all their sorry souls.
One of the most touching songs on the record is the sexually explicit "Reno," about a man sleeping with a prostitute. Springsteen sings it in a voice so tender and sympathetic that you might not notice he’s saying how much certain acts will cost the man. But even amid all the hard truths, he still has some fun, splashing around with a handful of winning upbeat love songs.

Springsteen was so focused on being a good story-teller that some songs get scene-setting introductions in the liner notes and he’s included translations of the Spanish words he uses. On some songs, he doesn’t even include a chorus. If the tune isn’t catchy—though several of them are—the drama of the words sticks in a different way. The first time I listened to the album, I kept reading ahead on the liner notes to find out what happens. And what happens isn’t ever trite. That's hard enough to pull off in a short story. He does it in single paragraphs.Throughout “Devils & Dust,” Springsteen sings of God and faith and redemption, as he often has before. In “Jesus Was an Only Son,” he finds an original perspective: Jesus’s mother prays that she’ll always be by his side. A record this good has its own kind of spirituality; “Devils & Dust” is sure to remind his fans why they worship at the altar of Springsteen.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

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