America’s Weird Old Boss 

Bruce Springsteen gets personal on a gutsy but weak new album.

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 aren’t about him — when they’re about laid-off factory workers or Mexican immigrants — they’re still about him.

That is why 2002’s 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 Boss’s 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 who’s no longer sure he wants to represent his country.

A grave acoustic ballad with arena-ready gimmicks courtesy of producer Brendan O’Brien, 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 1995’s 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.

It’s the sex that has people talking about Devils & Dust, although it shouldn’t be a surprise. Springsteen’s 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 life’s been wasted/Til you’ve got down on your knees and tasted/A red-headed woman”), or “Let’s 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 “Maria’s Bed,” sex can be redemptive and celebratory, a respite from everyday oppressions — “It’s 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 Springsteen’s 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 doesn’t 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. It’s a minor step up, but it still sounds particularly weak, partly due to O’Brien’s slick production, which, without the E Street Band to contend with, threatens to burnish away all of Springsteen’s eccentricities. 

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