Devils & Dust

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records, 2005

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


It's hell being a superstar in the '00s (or as some clever Brit nicknamed them, the "naughties"). The record company just won't let you make a small record. And if you do, they try even harder to sell it as a big one.

The scratchy, sepia-toned, somewhat overwrought packaging for Bruce Springsteen's thirteenth studio album Devils & Dust declares loudly to the buyer that THIS IS AN IMPORTANT ALBUM. A few listens, though, reveal its true nature. It's a solid, surprisingly varied outing with well-crafted songs and a few special moments, but hardly the revelatory exercise the marketeers would have you believe.

In terms of sound, it's most similar to Springsteen's mostly acoustic 1995 disc The Ghost Of Tom Joad: small, detailed songs set to small, detailed arrangements. The "band" is mostly Springsteen and producer Brendan O'Brien (The Rising), with occasional contributions from drummer Steve Jordan and E Street Band compadres Patti Scialfa, Soozie Tyrell and Dan Federici. A number of these songs were written during the Tom Joad era, but others are either older or more recent.

Among the best is the title track, a cut written around the time the U.S. invaded Iraq. It's a quiet, taut examination of the moral quagmire of war from a soldier's point of view, a song about doing what you have to survive in the physical world while risking your soul in the process ("It'll turn your heart black you can trust / It'll take your God-filled soul / Fill it with devils and dust").my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The rest of the songs are a mish-mash of familiar Springsteen themes: the power and mystery of sex ("Reno"), the way loss and memory intertwine ("Silver Palomino"), and, straight out of Lucky Town, the emotional bedrock formed by a strong commitment to family life ("Long Time Comin'" and "Leah"). Like Tom Joad, Devils & Dust is also sprinkled with evocative scenes and images from the Southwest ("Maria's Bed," "Matamoros Banks"), though the settings vary more this time around.

One of the more interesting exercises on this disc finds Springsteen reclaiming a song he wrote for Jersey shore friend Southside Johnny in 1991 -- "All The Way Home" -- and transforming it from a straightforward ballad into an echoey, exotic slice of rockabilly accented with O'Brien's tambora, sitar and electric sarangi(!). It's well done, though a bit of a musical non sequiter in the context of this disc.

One of the more alarming developments, it must be said, is the way Springsteen sometimes slips into the role of a character actor in a musician's body. For "Maria's Bed" he adopts what I can only describe as a hillbilly accent that complements the country-blues stylings of the song, yet remains unsettlingly odd. Not as disturbing, though, as the weird little not-quite-hitting-all-the-notes falsetto he uses to sing every single word of "All I'm Thinkin' About," rendering it basically unrecognizable as a Springsteen song.

Of course, when you're Bruce Springsteen, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. Springsteen is to be admired for mixing things up and experimenting with different voicings and musical styles; it's part of what has kept him fresh and vital as an artist. He could never have written and performed an album as powerful as The Rising this late in his career if he hadn't tried out the different approaches represented on discs like Tunnel Of Love, Human Touch and The Ghost Of Tom Joad.

That said, of the three primarily acoustic discs he's issued to date, Devils & Dust feels like the least consequential. There are a lot of solid, detailed story-songs here, but none with the emotional resonance of Tom Joad's "The Line," let alone Nebraska's "Highway Patrolman." (The DVD content on the flip side of this DualDisc only reinforces this sense... I kept thinking, "I want him to do this for Nebraska!") My advice to fans is to enjoy this album for what it is -- well-crafted, frequently entertaining, but less than revelatory storytelling -- and then look forward to the next E Street Band album.

Rating: C+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2005 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.