Back in 1974, the legendary rock critic Jon Landau, in one of the most quoted of all reviews, described the young Bruce Springsteen as “the future of rock’n’roll”. He’s been called many things in the years since, from boorish and jingoistic (by critics who didn’t bother to listen to Born In The USA) to anti-American (by US republicans after he expressed his preference for John Kerry in last year’s Presidential election).
Springsteen’s last album, 2002’s The Rising, attempted to address September 11 and although in retrospect it leaned slightly too much towards the bombastic, at the time it was the perfect healing present to a battered nation. Springsteen perfectly articulated the hopes, fears and hurt of his countrymen without once lapsing into excessive patriotism. It confirmed his gift as one of American’s premier songwriters.
As has been the case over the last 20 years, the large scale rock outing of The Rising is now followed by the quiet, acoustic strum of Devils & Dust. One to file next to classics such as Nebraska, Tunnel Of Love and The Ghost Of Tom Joad in other words, and the songs here bear comparison with some of his best.
Springsteen has always been much more than a mere songwriter, and more of a sketcher of characters. Those characters have changed from the idealistic dreamers that were “pulling out of this town to win” in Born To Run. Springsteen now sings of tortured people, from the Gulf War soldier of the title track to the down on his luck boxer in The Hitter. “The people who are interesting are those who have something eating at them” as the man himself says in the excellent accompanying DVD.
Perhaps the most powerful example of this here is the extraordinary Reno. Forget for the moment the novelty value of hearing Bruce Springsteen singing about having anal sex with a prostitute. Listen instead to the character narrating the song, starting with self-justification (“she had your ankles, I felt full of grace”) before ending in guilt and recrimination (“it wasn’t the best I had…not even close”). It’s a beautiful, moving song – even if, rather ridiculously, it’s meant that the album’s been slapped with a ‘parental advisory’ sticker in the States.
Similar emotions are conjured up by the title track, a powerful study of a soldier serving in Iraq who asks “what if what you do to survive kills the things you love,” and the closing immigrant lament for a lost lover of Matamoros Banks. Lighter relief is found in the charming All I’m Thinking About, but the more typical side of the album is represented by Black Cowboy, a wordy ballad that reads more like a novel than a song.
Producer Brendan O’Brien lends each song a subtle atmosphere, although the acoustic based songs are better than the few more rocky numbers here – All The Way Home and Long Time Coming, although fine songs, feel like they belong on a different album and are rather jarring here. Mostly though, O’Brien’s addition of strings and simple orchestration are all that’s needed for these beautifully sparse numbers.
This isn’t one for the casual Springsteen observer who prefers the more commercial side of The Boss – there’s no Dancing In The Dark or Thunder Road to be seen here. Devils & Dust is instead the sound of a man with nothing left to prove, but still able to effortlessly knock out a wonderfully thoughtful collection of stories. Long may he keep telling them.