Devils&Dust,the third in Bruce Springsteen's series of "solo/acoustic" records dating back to 1982's Nebraskaand 1995's TheGhostofTomJoad,is the most melodic and sonically varied, the most emotionally rich and poetic of the lot. The songs—often backed by nothing more than an acoustic guitar strummed over a soft bed of synthesizer, yet buttressed just enough by the occasional full-band arrangement, by horns and strings to avoid monotony—are also less self-consciously political, moving away from the agitprop reportage of Joadtoward a more philosophical distance on his subjects that makes for music that's often tragically beautiful.
Employing a colloquial lyricism packed with concrete images, Devils&Dustis, subject-wise, all over the place. It kicks off with the title cut, about an American soldier in Iraq, who muses:
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The "we" here, of course, refers not just to our soldiers but to an America so anxiety-ridden by 9/11 that what it does to survive may be killing the things we say we love—an open society here, humanitarianism abroad. Still, the song never pushes the political critique, striking instead a stance of tragic compassion that transcends the politics of the moment. (A move reinforced in his recent shows at the Pantages, where he warned against the "smug superiority" that liberals—himself and much of his audience—can feel toward the Iraq mess.)
Leavening the heaviness are cuts like "All the Way Home," "Leah" and "Long Time Comin'," which rock lightly, tightly, optimistically about second chances and what Bruce has come to call the "transformation" promised by love and family. In "Long Time Comin'," the main character sings about a father he barely knew, a marriage and family he can barely keep together, yet promises himself that now that a new child is coming along, "I ain't gonna fuck it up this time."
Then there are the songs Springsteen seems to have conceived as a kind of short story cycle about mothers and sons. There's "Black Cowboys," about a ghetto boy whose deep love for his mother is betrayed when she takes up with a drug dealer; "Silver Palomino," a mumbled folk tune in which a 13-year-old boy surreally fills the void of his dead mother by envisioning a palomino tracking through the mountains; and "Jesus Was an Only Son," which conceives of Christ's sacrifice in starkly personal terms: he was giving up not just his life for us, the song suggests, but also giving up the love he had for his mother. It's a song so simple and mysterious it would fit on Dylan's JohnWesleyHarding.
But nothing on the CD quite prepares us for "Reno," a quietly devastating narrative about a guy who visits a Reno prostitute. "Two hundred dollars straight in," she tells him, "two fifty up the ass," then gets down on her knees and takes him in her mouth. Later, she sticks a wet finger in her ass prior to climbing on top of him and easing him in. What saves the song from being porn exploitation isn't just a long history of Springsteen's gentlemanliness toward women on his records, but the wondrous psychic space the john goes to while she's going down on him: he dreams of a lost love, sweet and almost otherworldly, that he wasn't strong enough to keep alive. The song mixes the blessedness of sex, the wretchedness of abandoned love, and the glaring despair of the New West in a way that recalls the great Wim Wenders film Paris,Texas.The CD is vintage American music, delivered by one of the major avatars of the American tradition.