For a musician who has come to be identified with all-American rock-and-roll, Bruce Springsteen’s songs emanate from a very specific, very private imagination. From his early stories of Asbury Park rabble-rousers and the hardships of The River to his mid-80s divorce album (Tunnel of Love) to his Grapes of Wrath-inspired The Ghost of Tom Joad, he sings about subjects and characters that fascinate and obsess him but on a scale that belies his celebrity. As a result, even when his songs arent about him when theyre about laid-off factory workers or Mexican immigrants theyre still about him.
That is why 2002s The Rising was such a disappointment: Springsteen tried to speak not for himself but for an entire nation still nursing its post-9/11 wounds and looking desperately for a rock-and-roll album on a par with Born To Run or Born in the U.S.A. Such an admirable undertaking produced an awkwardly public album, the scope of which dulled his empathy for his subjects despite the immediacy of that national tragedy.
Fortunately, the Bosss 11th album, Devils & Dust, sounds personal again weirdly, defiantly, eccentrically, indulgently personal. Whereas The Rising chronicled the resilience of common Americans, Devils & Dust charts the current political and cultural landscape during an administration that Springsteen publicly opposes. In doing so, he has made an album that sounds bleak and hopeful in equal measure, evoking an America made dangerous by the powers-that-be but inhabited by individuals strong enough to survive. Devils & Dust sounds like a reaction to The Rising, made by an artist whos no longer sure he wants to represent his country.
A grave acoustic ballad with arena-ready gimmicks courtesy of producer Brendan OBrien, the title track name-drops Dylan and sets the stage with the bleak Dustbowl imagery of a field of blood and stone. That imagery reappears briefly at the end of Black Cowboys, which is one of several slow, quiet songs that recall the hushed tone and the short-story scale of 1995s The Ghost of Tom Joad. Silver Palomino and The Hitter tell long stories full of hard times, but only the album closer, Matamoros Banks, manages to rise above monotony.
Its the sex that has people talking about Devils & Dust, although it shouldnt be a surprise. Springsteens music has always had a lusty quality. Listen to Red-Headed Woman, his early-90s ode to oral sex and possibly wife Patti Scialfa (Your lifes been wasted/Til youve got down on your knees and tasted/A red-headed woman), or Lets Be Friends (Skin to Skin), from The Rising, which is as close to Marvin Gaye as the Boss gets. For the narrators of Long Time Comin and Marias Bed, sex can be redemptive and celebratory, a respite from everyday oppressions Its me and you, Rosie, cracklin like crossed wires, he sings on Long Time Comin.
But Reno, the song that got Devils & Dust banned from Starbucks, gives a franker, more dire depiction of sex. The narrator describes a tryst with a prostitute, comparing her to a lost wife or lover. She took off her bra and panties, wet her finger, he sings, slipped inside her, and crawled over me on the bed. The contrast between the workmanlike sex and the wistful memories (Sunlight on the Amatitlan, sunlight streaming thru your hair) creates a far grittier account of longing than anything on The Rising, but Springsteens descriptions, while purposely unerotic, seem tedious and mechanical. Until the understated, yet devastating, ending, his lyrics and vocals are as businesslike as the characters hotel-room transaction. That may be the point, but it doesnt redeem the song or the characters.
A gutsy album, Devils & Dust definitely tests the goodwill Springsteen enjoyed with The Rising, which garnered his highest sales and was pronounced a classic even before its release. Its a minor step up, but it still sounds particularly weak, partly due to OBriens slick production, which, without the E Street Band to contend with, threatens to burnish away all of Springsteens eccentricities.