Monday, April 25, 2005

Robert Hilburn: Through the Eyes of the Suffering

April 24, 2005
The Los Angeles Times
Bruce Springsteen returns to moving portraits of struggling individuals on "Devils & Dust."

Bruce Springsteen
"Devils & Dust" (Columbia)

"I got my finger on the trigger, but I don't know who to trust / When I look into your eyes, there's just devils and dust," Bruce Springsteen sings in the opening line of his latest album. And yes, he's speaking about a soldier's anxious vigil in Iraq.

In the track, Springsteen assumes the role of a soldier on patrol, unable to find comfort in even the friendliest foreign face and knowing self-preservation can be all-consuming:

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.

But America's blue-collar chronicler isn't continuing down the path of "The Rising," his rousing, anthem-packed 2002 reflection on the nation's emotional state after the twin towers terrorist attack.

In this mostly stark, acoustic CD (due in stores Tuesday), he returns to moving portraits of struggling individuals here at home, especially migrant workers in the Southwest, where devils and dust of a different kind can be equally threatening.

This is the Alternative Bruce of 1982's "Nebraska" and 1995's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," albums in which he stepped away from the superhero "Boss" persona and the E Street Band spectacle to examine the gritty, dimly lighted world of characters who have been pushed to society's extremes.

It's not the side that has helped Springsteen fill stadiums. But it's just as heart-stirring in its careful, restrained way, and it's been the source of his most compelling work over the last 15 years.

Springsteen was on such a personal high during the "Tom Joad" theater tour that he frequently returned to his hotel after the performances to work on new songs, some of which are in this album.

Where Southern California was the setting of many of the sketches in "Tom Joad," the locales in "Devils & Dust" stretch from the "rutted hills of Oklahoma," where a young black man longs for the freedom of the cowboy life after fleeing the mean streets back east, to the banks of the Rio Grande, where a young Mexican's search for a better life in this country ends in tragedy.

In these folk- and country-flavored story songs, Springsteen combines the empathy of Woody Guthrie with the storytelling economy of Hank Williams. He's superb at being true to the character yet giving the experience a universal edge.

"Jesus Was an Only Son" creates an evocative link among mothers everywhere — whether in the Southwest worrying about their sons in Iraq or in Mexico fearful of bad news from north of the border.

In the neo-gospel tune, Springsteen sings:

Now there's a loss that can never be replaced,
A destination that can never be reached,
A light you'll never find in another's face,
A sea whose distance cannot be breached.

"Reno" is about a man who spends most of his encounter with a prostitute trying desperately to remember the time long ago when he rode with vaqueros in the Valle de dos RĂ­os and when sex was an act of love. A reference in the song to anal sex makes "Devils & Dust" the first Springsteen album to carry a cautionary sticker.

As is his habit, Springsteen sometimes revisits past themes, approaching them from a slightly different angle. "Matamoros Banks" is a spiritually tinged statement of death, reminiscent of "Across the Border" from "Tom Joad."

Instead of looking forward to "drinking from God's blessed waters," however, the character in "Banks" retraces the journey that took him to the Rio Grande, searching for loved ones left behind.

Amid the album's many storm clouds, there are occasional rays of hope. "All the Way Home" is about hanging out in any old bar where the band is trashin' some old Stones song.

Just as Springsteen writes in different styles on the album, he also tries to get inside the spirit of the characters by singing in different voices, from the familiar country drawl of the "Nebraska" period to an aggressive falsetto. Producer Brendan O'Brien (on bass) and a few others add gentle traces of accompaniment to the album's primary guitar and harmonica coloring.

A couple of the songs are slight, and the DualDisc's half-hour video component is too arty in places for its own good, but the heart of the CD is filled with the compassion and craft that have made Springsteen such an invaluable figure in rock.

An underlying theme in the album, especially in "Maria's Bed" and "All I'm Thinkin' About," is how a good love can help pull you through hard times. It's the blessing, he suggests, of finding an ally who can walk through this world with you hand in hand, skin to skin, soul to soul.

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