Springsteen tells more great stories on ‘Devils and Dust’

Jon Dieringer

Credit: Beth Rankin

Though he was already an institution of literate, working-class rock ’n’ roll, Bruce Springsteen further solidified his reputation as a spokesman for American healing with the 2002 release of The Rising, an album which in hindsight stands as the definitive pop-cultural reaction to the tragedy of Sept. 11.

A follow-up would naturally be difficult, and questions lingered about whether Springsteen would make the logical progression to dealing with the Iraqi war and its humanitarian fallouts, as well as whether he’d continue to work with the E. Street Band.

In actuality, the only thing that fully carries over from The Rising is producer Brendan O’Brien, who plays bass for The Boss alongside drummer Steve Jordan. The loud, epic sweeps that filled The Rising have given way to a relatively sparse album based around the acoustic guitar, though it is often arranged with strings, horns and steel guitars.

Thematically, it’s a peer to Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” a series of sketches — often in first-person — of people dealing with their personal demons. But it might be better compared to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, as it comes across as an American Southwest version of that album.

Like Astral Weeks, it leads off with a title track that sets the theme for the album. It’s also the track that seems to most comment on the state of our country: “Fear’s a powerful thing / It’ll turn your heart black you can trust / It’ll take your God filled soul / Fill it with devils and dust,” Springsteen sings with his trademark vocal nuance.

The characters all exist as variations of that line. In “Reno,” a man fails to find inner-satisfaction from an encounter with a prostitute; a 13-year-old Hispanic boy copes with his mother’s death in “Silver Palomino”; “Long Time Coming,” one of the album’s hardest-driving songs, deals with a man who regrets that the sins of his past will make it difficult for him to provide a good life for his children.

As usual with Bruce, it’s all powerful stuff and makes for a solid, if not atypical, set of new songs. At the very worst, it lacks any standout song to propel it to classic Boss territory, but it’s hard to imagine someone denying the overall merit of Devils & Dust.

Contact Pop Arts reporter Jon Dieringer at [email protected].