The early buzz on Bruce Springsteen’s Devils & Dust was that it was to be another unflinching look at the underbelly of American society in the vein of previous efforts Nebraska (generally regarded as one of Bruce’s best) and The Ghost of Tom Joad (which I think is among his worst, though many fans and critics would disagree). This expectation was fueled by two facts: that Devils would not feature the peerless E Street Band and that Springsteen’s dissatisfaction with the Bush administration’s pursuit of the war on terror led the Boss to abandon his long-held apolitical public stance to actively campaign for John Kerry in 2004.
In fact, the title track, about a doubt-ridden soldier in Iraq, is the disc’s only overtly political one, but its effect as the first song on the CD was so jarring that it nearly put me off giving the rest of the album a fair hearing.
The title song, “Devils & Dust” is the mirror image of the title song from 2002’s The Rising. In that track on Springsteen’s 9/11-themed triumph, the Boss sang a taut anthem about a fireman inside one of the towers whose final thoughts rush in as the building collapses around him. The fireman is resolute, determined to “carry the Cross of my calling” no matter what the cost. Likewise, the soldier of “Devils & Dust” slips into a reverie about a far away loved one in his time of crisis, but he is less sure of himself and his duty. Though he says “I got God on my side,” he worries that he doesn’t know whom to trust as he looks at his fellow soldiers and worries that fear will destroy what little faith he has: “It’ll take your God filled soul / And fill it with devils and dust.
Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to praise the heroes of 9/11 on one hand and oppose the Iraq war on the other, but Springsteen undercuts his attempt to create a believable empathetic character in Devils by so transparently transferring his own opposition to the war and his mistrust of the administration to a soldier who probably wouldn’t feel the same way. Credibly suggesting that a soldier, even one doubtful of the war or its aims, cannot trust his comrades would take far more elucidation than Springsteen offers here.
The rest of the songs on Devils are set somewhere in the American West and are a mixed bag. Sonically, about half aspire to the same gritty realism of Nebraska and Ghost; the other half are rootsy rockers along the lines of 1992’s twin releases Human Touch and Lucky Town, which also suffered from the absence of the E Street Band.
Springsteen’s successes here are characteristically grand. “Long Time Comin’ ” and “Maria’s Bed” have the archetypal Springsteen heroes striving for redemption and love, only this time it’s on horseback out along a fence line in Big Sky country instead of behind the wheel of a Chevy on some Jersey strip.
But the Boss doesn’t merely set familiar themes in new scenery. “Jesus Was an Only Son” is a tender, simple ballad of Jesus and Mary at the Crucifixion, affectingly backed by a woody church organ, and the buoyant “All I’m Thinkin’ About” features a brilliant near-falsetto vocal.
However, the failures on Devils are even grander than the successes. On “Reno,” “Black Cowboys,” and “The Hitter,” Springsteen mumbles through tuneless, wordy narratives, which could almost qualify as short stories, made even less bearable by saccharine, string-heavy arrangements.
These story songs have plenty of keen detail, but little of the insight and focus that Springsteen is known for and that he summons for the album’s stunning closer, “Matamoros Banks,” a truly haunting tale of an illegal Mexican immigrant who ends up dead in a shallow river. In the liner notes, Springsteen sympathetically mentions the many who die attempting to cross “our southern border in search of a better life,” and no matter how one feels about the issue, this song, unlike “Devils & Dust,” proves that divisive political issues can be the subject of great, thought-provoking art in the hands of a careful craftsman.
One final note: Devils & Dust is among the first albums to be released in the DualDisc format, which includes the standard CD on one side of the disc and DVD content on the other. Here, the DVD content is a splendid half-hour film featuring Springsteen solo-acoustic guitar performances of five of the album’s songs and an audio/video track that displays each song’s lyrics on the screen as the album plays.