Bruce Springsteen – Devils & Dust

Devils & Dust (2005)

B-

1. Devils & Dust 2. All The Way Home 3. Reno 4. Long Time Comin’ 5. Black Cowboys 6. Maria’s Bed 7. Silver Palomino 8. Jesus Was An Only Son 9. Leah 10. The Hitter 11. All I’m Thinkin’ About 12. Matamoros Banks

 

Ah, 2005. Forever shall it be known as the year of wrinkly classic rock rock dinosaurs releasing critically acclaimed stripped down albums that turned out to be… well, for the most part, pretty mediocre in retrospect. I remember it like it was yesterday. That was the year I graduated 8th grade and started high school, after all, and being at the height of both my teenage stupidity and my classic rock puritanism, I was all psyched about Neil Young’s Prairie Wind, the Stones’ A Bigger Bang and Paul McCartney’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard all coming out within the same month! And oh what a month it was. I saw the Stones live for the first time and totally got to second base, dude. Not at the same time, though. That would have been weird.

I didn’t get into Springsteen until a few years later so the release of Devils & Dust earlier that same year went more or less ignored on my part, other than seeing copies of it on the racks at Best Buy, as well as hearing the title track once or twice on Q104.3 and dismissing it as a boring dirge. But it still fits in well with those other albums, which, other than the shockingly great Chaos and Creation (which I maintain is Paul’s finest post-Beatles record outside his first two and Band on the Run), essentially follow the same formula: evoking past glories just effectively enough to trick dumb 14-year olds and/or Jann Wenner into thinking they’re late-career classics. Plus throw in an anti-Bush tune or two to keep the aging Daily Kos-reading Boomers happy (I’ve come around on the Iraq soldier character study “Devils & Dust,” at least lyrically – it’s certainly a hell of a lot better than the Stones’ utterly idiotic “Sweet Neo Con,” which rhymes, among other things, “hypocrite” with “crock of shit,” “certain” with “Halliburton,” and “neo con” with “Pentagon.” No, I’m serious, that’s an actual song that Mick Jagger wrote. Then again, he also thought the “Let’s Work” video was a good idea so there you go).

Granted, Devils & Dust, the album, is the least predictable of the bunch, as it’s very far away from Born to Run 2: Still Running, But Getting Really Tired Cause I’m Old Now and Have a Heart Condition. But it still nods blatantly to a couple chapters of Bruce’s past: Nebraska and (ugh) The Ghost of Tom Joad. Yes, Bruce is back in world-weary folk singer mode yet again, and here’s here to sadden us with more acoustic tales of socio-economic woe. Only this time, he can’t stop singing about hookers! There are two songs about balling hookers on this album! Gotta love Horny Bruce of “Red Headed Woman” fame. I mean, Horny Bruce can’t write decent not-gross lyrics for shit, but at least he’s getting his rocks off. Good for you, buddy.

But enough about hookers. When considered in the context of what we can now view as Bruce’s acoustic folk trilogy, Devils & Dust does its job: (partially) redeeming the sins of the disappointing sequel. It features an intermittent return to actual melody-based songwriting, for one thing, at times veering away from a folk style into straight up pop rock. It also sees Bruce once again recognizing that it’s possible to write folk songs and take chances with production. It isn’t by any means a return to the lo-fi ambient aesthetic of Nebraska, but rather combines traditional folk instrumentation and modern-sounding touches courtesy of The Rising producer Brendan O’Brien, which definitely works better in some places than others, but is at least sorta weird – which is welcome at this stage is Bruce’s career.

Indeed, the best songs on Devils & Dust are not only legitimately catchy as heck, but forge a sonic aesthetic unique in Bruce’s catalog. That aesthetic is sort of muddled on the title track, which opens the album – it sort of feels like throwing shit at a wall, with distorted electric guitar, electronic percussion, orchestral strings, synths, and the straightforward folksy skeleton of the song all competing with rather than complementing one another in the mix. But it feels more organic on highlights like “All the Way Home” and “Maria’s Bed” (aka the good hooker song). An organ, synth, or sometimes strings will provide a sweet, pillowy bedrock while sharper melodic elements provide ear candy, like the rattling lead guitar lick on “All the Way Home” or the chanting backup vocal choir on “Maria’s Bed.” Even Bruce’s voice is different, about as unfamiliar as it can get – high, pinched, restrained. He takes it to a questionable extreme with his pseudo-falsetto on the boogie “All I’m Thinkin’ About,” but even though it’s objectively the worst recorded vocal performance of his career, it’s so amateurish that it’s kind of… cute? Like a baby goat trying to walk for the first time, or Ivanka Trump pretending to be smart and logical.

The fact that these songs, along with the joyful hoedown “Long Time Comin’,” are the album’s clear highlights is also unusual in the Springsteen canon in that they are all songs about love, lust, and family. Those are the things we wanted to Bruce to avoid after the early ‘90s, right? Well, once you get a load of the “social commentary” songs on here, perhaps you’ll be ready to jump on board with the ‘90s nostalgia fad that’s happening right now. That’s because they’re pretty much all miserable Tom Joad-like dirges. “Black Cowboys,” “Silver Palomino,” “The Hitter,” “Matamoros Banks” – they may be more sonically appealing than their counterparts on Tom Joad—a few have some nice piano or something in the background—they still feature Bruce mumbling incomprehensibly and slowly going back and forth between two or three finger-picked chords as boringly as possible.

Perhaps the worst offender, ostensibly, is “Reno” (aka the other hooker song). It features the least imaginative chord sequence of all time (woah! A I-IV-V folk song! Blowin’ my mind there, Bruce!), the acoustic slide guitar is so hilariously inept it sounds like I played it, and 90% of the lyrics are utterly impossible to make out because Bruce’s affected “folk singer” accent is so thick it sounds like he’s singing in another language. But there’s something about the way a dramatic string section is layered on top of the acoustic bedrock, coupled with the haunting final line, one of the few I can actually make out (“It wasn’t the best I ever had/Not even close”) that sticks with me after the song ends. That’s probably because it doesn’t feel lazy like so many of Bruce’s post-Nebraska folk songs. Much of it may be misguided – in addition to the deficiencies mentioned above, the song also famously features Bruce and a hooker negotiating over the price of backdoor boning (“Two-fifty up the ass” – god, I’ve always wanted the visual image of Bruce Springsteen assfucking a hooker in my brain). There’s a kind of weird arrangement, and Bruce is singing about something totally different. When it comes to Bruce’s output post-age 50, unexpected doesn’t always mean great, but at least it doesn’t mean boring and predictable.



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