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Springsteen's new album Devils & Dust
The heart in a heartless world

Review by Alan Maass | June 3, 2005 | Page 8

Bruce Springsteen, Devils & Dust, released by Columbia Records.

NO ONE can accuse Bruce Springsteen of sticking to a record-company formula.

His follow-up to his first top-10 single 25 years ago--"Hungry Heart," from the double album The River--was Nebraska, a haunting, mainly acoustic record that told the stories of doomed outlaws and people at the margins of society. A few years later, Born in the USA cemented Springsteen's place as an American icon; for his next album, he broke up the E Street Band and made the introspective Tunnel of Love, a record about heartbreak and isolation.

In 2002, nearly a decade after his last studio album, Springsteen released The Rising, which was hyped as the final word on America's reaction to the September 11, 2001, attacks. After spending the 1990s in semi-obscurity, Springsteen was re-enshrined as a superstar.

Now, he's back with Devils & Dust, and it's another hairpin turn.

The new disk is a return to Springsteen's quiet storytelling mode--similar in sound and sentiment to The Ghost of Tom Joad, his masterful wake-up call from amid the complacency of the Clinton era. In fact, many of the songs on Devils & Dust were written and recorded after Tom Joad was released in 1995; Springsteen and his producer Brendan O'Brien added backing tracks to prepare them for the new album.

One exception is the title cut "Devils & Dust." Written after the invasion of Iraq, the song is a powerful statement about the dehumanization of war, written from the point of view of a U.S. soldier in Iraq:

I got God on my side.
I'm just trying to survive.
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love?

At the beginning of the song, the soldier narrator looks into the eyes of Iraqis and sees "just devils and dust." But by the end, he has concluded that "faith just ain't enough"-- and that it is his own heart that has been filled with "devils and dust."

In some ways, though, "Devils & Dust" is an exception to the album it leads off--and in ways that clarify the obvious comparison with The Ghost of Tom Joad.

Tom Joad was an expressly political album--invoking on its opening tack the famous "I'll be there" speech from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. This sets the tone for a collection of songs that consciously aimed to document the lives of the forgotten "other America"--immigrants, union workers kicked out of a job, ex-convicts, the poor.

By contrast, the songs on Devils & Dust are typically more personal and intimate. A good example is "Reno"--a gentle song that ironically earned Devils & Dust a parental warning sticker and banning from Starbucks because of its explicit descriptions of sex.

"Reno" tells the story of a heart-broken man who goes to a prostitute--an act of desperation that fails to recapture the image of a love lost years ago. "Somehow," he concludes, "all you ever need is never really quite enough, you know." That line captures the longing for redemption and peace--while expecting neither--of the characters that inhabit this album.

Social and political forces still batter them, but in ways they don't always recognize, much less exercise any control over. Thus, in "Reno," the unspoken part of the story is the economic necessity that drove the narrator to leave Mexico and his love--and endure a life of loneliness and alienation in the U.S.

The gut-wrenching "Black Cowboys" is about a boy who is sheltered from the dangers and violence of his poverty-stricken neighborhood by his mother--until the streets claim her, rather than him. Out of sight in the background is an indictment of a society that tolerates racism and desperate poverty in the richest nation on earth.

There's another side to Devils & Dust, though. In other songs, Springsteen allows some of these characters to achieve an unlooked-for measure of peace and contentment--through their relationships to those they love.

"Long Time Coming," for example, could be about any number of characters from previous Springsteen songs--doomed to struggle with the demons in their lives. Here, though, the narrator takes pride in having survived and held his family together--so that he can at least wish for his kids that "your mistakes would be your own/Yeah, your sins would be your own." As Harry Browne pointed out on the CounterPunch Web site, this answers a lyric in Springsteen's 1978 song "Adam Raised a Cain": "You're born into this life payin'/For the sins of somebody else's past."

It's a tiny victory--too tiny--but a victory nonetheless, and hard-won in the face of all the world dishes out.

Peaceful is the defining quality of the music, too. The songs are often no more than a whisper of a voice and fragment of a tune--a stark difference from the wall-of-sound, E Street Band anthems of The Rising and other Springsteen albums.

If I have a gripe with anything about the album, it's that the music is too peaceful--no edge. For one thing, Springsteen and his producer reach for a generic string background on too many songs, when an emptier setting would have contributed to the power of the stories. That's where I miss The Rising--an album that grew on me a lot the further it got from the media hype that greeted it.

What does stand out musically about Devils & Dust is how Springsteen has gone beyond the bar-band rock and roll he's known for--drawing on country, folk, delta blues, gospel, even traces of Mexican folk music.

The use of music associated with spirituality is one of the ways that religion emerges on this album. Another is the religious references and imagery in the lyrics--which has led some writers to wonder if Devils & Dust is a retreat for Springsteen into "family values." But religion for Springsteen is a very human matter. The song "Jesus Was an Only Son" revolves around the crisis of its main character, talking to his mother about the trials ahead to remain steadfast in the face of the scorn and intolerance.

This is more like the Jesus of Woody Guthrie or even Eugene Debs--whose allusions to the "carpenter from Galilee" were meant to illustrate class and social questions, not to convey devotion to organized religion. It certainly isn't the religion of Jerry Falwell and George Bush.

Or John Kerry either. Springsteen's most visible act of the past year had nothing to do with his music, but with his decision to endorse the Democratic Party candidate for president, participate in a star-studded concert tour called "Vote for Change" and serve several times as a warm-up act for Kerry on the campaign trail. Kerry didn't deserve this support any more than he deserved the votes of millions of people whose hatred of the Bush administration led them to tolerate Kerry's pandering to the right, on the war, gay marriage and lots more.

Before the election, the newsletter Rock and Rap Confidential--edited by Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh--printed an unsigned article that criticized the Vote for Change tour for its "goal of electing Kerry [that] is unworthy of these artists." Nevertheless, RRC found something positive in the initiative--in terms of the political development of someone like Springsteen, moving from, say, supporting a food bank to a more extensive and public commitment.

"The move from taking a moral stance to taking a political one marks an important shift," RRC wrote, "and a far greater risk than a policy-oriented campaign like Sun City or No Nukes...These artists' movement from moral to political is irrevocable--you can't go back, even if you want to. As the new administration begins to act against the beliefs of these artists, they will have choices to make about who to side with then--the lesser of two evils or with people who aren't evil at all, but are acting politically in mostly non-electoral areas."

I thought that RRC's argument made a lot of sense, and repeated it myself. But the outcome of the election revealed a hole in the logic--John Kerry didn't win, and so the Anybody-But-Bush left hasn't had to confront the betrayals of a Democratic presidency. Thus, when the "new administration" acts "against the beliefs of these artists," much of the left can still cling to the illusion that the Democrats would provide a significantly different alternative.

So the contradiction remains. Nevertheless, one thing that's striking about hearing Devils & Dust is how far it is from anything John Kerry would say, do, endorse or otherwise be associated with. With Devils & Dust, Springsteen isn't speaking up for a two-faced politician--but speaking out again as the voice of the have-nots. Much better.

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