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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: Devils & Dust


1) Devils & Dust; 2) All The Way Home; 3) Reno; 4) Long Time Comin'; 5) Black Cowboys; 6) Maria's Bed; 7) Silver Palomino; 8) Jesus Was An Only Sun; 9) Leah; 10) The Hitter; 11) All I'm Thinkin' About; 12) Matamoros Banks.

If you are not a dedicated Boss man, most likely you will not be interested in any Springsteen albums past The Rising. He deserves mega-respect for the effort, which was not only his most gargantuan, but also most daring and experimental blast in years — but it seems to have drained his creativity, and everything released since then played it safer, homelier, and more predictable. The man had little left to prove, after all, and was only too happy, it seems, to slip into a stable «elder statesman» image, promoted by such institutions as Rolling Stone (whose editors would never dare to give any of his subsequent records anything less than 4.5 stars) and the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame (where he is one of the most frequent guests whenever anything presumably important is going on). This is not to say that he's turned to crap or anything — however «frozen» his sound has become, it is at least frozen in a tasteful configuration, unlike, say, Aerosmith — but, I repeat, unless you are a diehard fan, it is not easy to get a natural adrenaline rush from lis­tening to anything he created after the Twin Tower crash.

With Devils & Dust, released three years after the triumph of The Rising, Bruce repeats the old trick of «cooling down» — a low-key, largely acoustic record, made without the help of the E Street Band, to reroute the huge external emotional rush of its predecessor and internalize it. A move that, by now, has become all too predictable, and all too dangerous, given how The Boss is such a master of the «big and bulging», but not doing so good at the «subtle and nuanced», where he'd never really managed to dethrone Dylan or Johnny Cash. Luckily, this is not a flat-out bad album like Tom Joad; but neither does it have any staggering highlights like Nebraska's ʽState Trooperʼ or ʽAtlantic Cityʼ.

Then again, on Nebraska what we saw was a still young, hungry, and angry Bruce Springsteen, and even some of its worst songs could still vibrate with emotional tension. Here, what we have is an old, tired, and contemplative Bruce Springsteen — and, I dunno, he might not really be that old and tired, but he's playing out that role anyway. The title track was written from the perspec­tive of a soldier in the Iraq war, and it is a very quiet, soulful, mournful, and maybe even bashful acoustic ballad that simply describes the psychological effects of war rather than rails against them. It is decent, but it is absolutely unexceptional — lyrics, vocals, melody, arrangement, at­mosphere, all of this is rather standard singer-songwriter fare. And by 2005, I'm sure, all of us have heard so many anti-war songs that this one will not be likely to come across as an amazing epiphany. All I can say is that it sounds «authentic», like one more professionally performed exe­rcise in folk-style songwriting — and the same goes for just about everything else here.

Of course, the Boss remains a revered word man to an even larger extent than a music man, and he offers plenty of points for lyrical discussions here — in ʽRenoʼ, for instance, he imagines (or remembers? whatever) an encounter with a local hooker in almost pornographically explicit de­tails, making his subset of housewife fans blush all across the neighborhood; of course, the main point is not that the song features the line "two hundred dollars straight in, two-fifty up the ass", but that even during a quick local dirty sex act, the protagonist is still reminiscing of "sunlight streaming thru your hair" and "that smile coming out 'neath your hat" — but, you know, those kinds of lines we all know in Boss songs already, while "two-fifty up the ass" is definitely a no­velty. And then there's ʽThe Hitterʼ, which is his personal ʽThe Boxerʼ, only set to some Woody Guthrie melody rather than a Paul Simon one. And then there are stories of ramblers, cowboys, lots of Mexican imagery for some reason, and a bit of Jesus on the side.

But even if you can still extract a few samples of clever folk-poetry images from some of the songs (not all, though — ʽJesus Was An Only Sonʼ is so oddly straightforward, it could just as well have been an outtake from Dylan's Saved), as songs, these things aren't all too compelling. Looking back one more time, I can remember being mildly entertained by two of them — ʽMaria's Bedʼ has some seductive slide guitar riffs, played à la George Harrison circa 1973-74, a catchy vocal melody, and an irresistible toe-tapping groove; and ʽAll I'm Thinkin' Aboutʼ is a humorous folk boogie where Bruce is attempting to express his feelings for his baby by rising all, or most, of the way up to falsetto — it's shakey, but fun.

Unfortunately, both of these songs are semi-comic interludes, and it is the «heavy», «serious» stuff that largely leaves me unmoved. It's all listenable — it's simply not clear why exactly we need somebody of Bruce Springsteen's caliber to perform it, when any experienced old-timer from Nashville or Oklahoma could easily do instead. Worst of all, these really aren't deep songs: this is Springsteen trying to write something in the half-century-old folk idiom, instead of adap­ting that idiom to his own personality, as he'd occasionally done in the past. Perhaps this is a noble case of artistic humility, but if so, I would be perfectly happy to bow down in acknowledg­ment — humility is a rare and respectable quality — and move along to the next record.


  1. "All I'm Thinkin' About" is not the only song where Springsteen sings in a high-pitched falsetto. Check out "Lift Me Up" from the movie "Limbo" which was originally available on the third disc of a compilation album "The Essential":

  2. Well, it's not quite as dull as "..Joad", but it's an uglier, more unpleasant album, where that one was merely depressing. My favorite is "All the Way Home", a suprisingly upbeat pop-folk-rocker that sounds strangely (if welcomingly) out of place. By this point, though, I didn't need anymore of Bruce as a folkie social commentator.