By Steve Morse, Boston Globe Staff
April 22, 2005
Once a decade, Bruce Springsteen unstraps his electric guitar, goes acoustic, and makes music that marks him as a Woody Guthrie of his time. In the '80s, he issued ''Nebraska," then came ''The Ghost of Tom Joad" in the '90s, and now ''Devils & Dust," which arrives in stores Tuesday.
The new disc has some seriously dark moments, but it's not as grim as ''Tom Joad." That record was the poorest-selling of Springsteen's career, so he may have taken stock. The new album is again laden with humans on the edge (''These are all people who are in danger or at risk," Springsteen says in the DVD portion of this DualDisc), but five of the 12 songs are filled with hope and optimism, providing much-needed release.
''The characters on this record are all trying to find their way," Springsteen says on the DVD, which contains solo acoustic performances of five tunes. ''Some do it somewhat successfully -- and some come to tragic ends."
The net result is an emotional powerhouse -- a high-water mark of Springsteen's career that has seen him go from Asbury Park party boy to literary folk poet of the Western prairie and desert. He compels us to feel for the dust-swept soldier in the somber title track, the displaced street kid in ''Black Cowboys" (which could serve as a companion piece to ''Sinaloa Cowboys" from ''Tom Joad"), the boy grieving his mother in ''Silver Palomino," and the men who have found joy and salvation through committed love relationships in ''All the Way Home" and ''Leah."
Although Springsteen spent last fall doing shows to support John Kerry's presidential campaign, there is an absence of political rhetoric, though the title track was inspired by the Iraq war. It was written just after the start of the war and deals with the anxiety of an American soldier, though Iraq is not specifically mentioned. ''Fear's a dangerous thing and it can turn your heart black . . . I've got my finger on the trigger and tonight faith just ain't enough," Springsteen sings.
The album, which contains songs he has written over the last 10 years, has more overall bounce than ''Tom Joad." There is some twangy country-rock that could have fit onto Springsteen's ''The River" album -- and though he sparingly uses a few members of his regular E Street Band (notably wife Patti Scialfa on harmonies), he stretches out by playing guitar, keyboards, and drums on the euphoric ''All I'm Thinking About." He happily repeats that phrase 24 times as he depicts a man who can't wait to get home. ''Ain't nothin' in this world I can do about it -- all I'm thinking about is you," he sings in a vein similar to ''Mary's Place" from his previous album, ''The Rising."
The darker songs, however, are absolutely heart wrenching. ''Reno" is unlike anything he has done -- a bluesy lament about a hooker who thinks she is really pleasing her client (''She poured me another whiskey, said 'Here's to the best you ever had' "), yet the protagonist concludes, ''It wasn't the best I ever had/ It wasn't even close." The graphic imagery includes a reference to a sex act and is responsible for the disclaimer on the CD jacket: ''This song contains some adult imagery."
Springsteen also explores the bonds between mothers and sons in several mournful numbers. The most affecting is ''Silver Palomino," about a boy whose mother's hand ''slips from his hair" as she dies. He then rides into the mountains and spies a palomino whose spirit is as untamed as his mother's. It's an exalting image. The song is followed by the lightly syncopated ''Jesus Was an Only Son," describing one's mother as ''a light you'll never see in another face."
Further probing these bonds are the recitative ''Black Cowboys" (about a son who runs away after his mother is corrupted by the law-breaking behavior of a new lover) and the spellbinding ''The Hitter," about a boxer who has punched himself into a world of no restraint and mercy yet shows up at his mother's door on a rainy night, saying, ''I ask of you nothin', not a kiss, not a smile/ Just open the door and let me lie down for a while."
Springsteen, who performs a sold-out show at the Orpheum May 20, concludes with the prayerful piece de resistance, ''Matamoros Banks." It ingeniously backtracks a man's journey from the bottom of the Rio Grande, where he has died after trying to cross the border from Mexico to Texas, back to the safety of his lover's arms at home.
It's also a poignant highlight on the flip-side DVD, on which a black-garbed Springsteen sings alone in a dimly framed corner of a country house, lit only by an antique lamp. These live performances are more downcast than the overall tone of the album, and he adds an extended keening wail to ''Matamoros Banks" that is absent from the CD version.
Springsteen's songwriting has never been more precise. The balance he achieves on the album between light and dark, joy and despair, assures that it will touch his most diehard fans, even though it may be too real for a marketplace that seems to require an endless supply of escapism.