Any artist, whether it’s a musician, filmmaker, writer or painter, will be pigeonholed by fans and critics alike at some point in their career. It’s human nature. We like things to be neat and organized and as straightforward as possible. By this token, Bruce Springsteen is luckier than most artists. Popular opinion now accepts that there are essentially two sides to Bruce. There’s E Street Bruce, the man behind classic songs and albums like Born To Run and Born In The U.S.A. Everybody loves E Street Bruce and when he came roaring back in 2002 with The Rising, he was welcomed like a local hero returning home after a great victory.
On the other side of the coin is Folk Bruce, the somber artist responsible for often downbeat albums such as Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad. (Since we’re talking here about popular opinion, we will charitably ignore the Bruce responsible for Human Touch and Lucky Town since those albums were never popular.) It’s Folk Bruce who’s front and center on Devils & Dust, as if you couldn’t tell from the title and the weathered, sepia-toned cover. This division is very handy for shorthand discussions of Springsteen’s work. On the surface, all three albums seem fairly similar. The songs are (mostly) stripped-down and acoustic and the songwriting focuses on Springsteen’s strengths as a storyteller. Most of the stories being told are open-ended and very few of them point towards a happy ending.
But Devils & Dust is a different album from either of those earlier releases. Albums don’t come much more stark and bare-bones than Nebraska and the more-polished Devils & Dust lacks the often frightening urgency of that watershed album. Lyrically, however, Springsteen’s writing just gets better and better. His best songs have always painted pictures as vivid as those in any short story. That talent is on ample display here with lines that play out in your mind’s eye in slow motion, allowing you to linger on the details of the back alley, bare knuckle boxing in “The Hitter” or the cheap motel room in “ Reno”.
As in The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen puts himself in the place of would-be immigrants (“Matamoros Banks”) and urban kids looking for a way out (“Black Cowboys”). The title track lands us in the boots of a soldier in the deserts of Iraq, no real surprise considering the themes of The Rising and Springsteen’s now-explicit political stance in the last election. But even though I admire the songwriting in every track here, there are a couple songs that I think would be better served if they were performed by someone else. It’s a shame Johnny Cash isn’t still around to cover “Silver Palomino” and “Jesus Was An Only Son”. I can’t help but think his voice would bring those tracks up to a different level.
I’ll admit that Devils & Dust did not grab me at first listen. Part of this is simply due to the fact that this isn’t that type of album. You have to sit and listen and give yourself the time and space to focus on the songs. But another part of it was my frustration with the wonderful new DualDisc technology. This was my first exposure to DualDisc (at least under this name…didn’t the Blair Witch 2 DVD try to stick a CD on the flip side of the DVD a few years back?). A little insert explains that “the CD audio side plays on all but a limited number of CD and DVD models”. Well, apparently I bought every one of those limited number because I couldn’t get the CD side to play on any machine in my possession. After I resigned myself to the fact that I could only play the DVD side, everything worked fine and sounded terrific. The video portion includes a half-hour mini-movie with Bruce talking about the album and performing solo acoustic versions of five of the songs. This is all fine and if folks want to start releasing albums on DVD, I think that’s an interesting way to go. I just don’t understand what benefit there is in gluing a CD onto the flip side that doesn’t work in every single CD player on Mother Earth. Call me old-fashioned.
Springsteen fans argue constantly over which album is his best. Even so, I think most will agree that Devils & Dust isn’t it. It is, however, a rich, rewarding album from an artist who has grown comfortable and confident in his skills as a storyteller. Folk Bruce may never be the crowdpleaser that E Street Bruce is. But one couldn’t exist without the other and those of us who are longtime fans of both sides will find much to admire on Devils & Dust.