"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Bruce Springsteen - Devils and Dust

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Imagine you've spent the night at a big house party smoking, drinking and carrying on into the wee hours. Almost everyone else has crashed out or staggered home and you find yourself in the kitchen with the last survivors, puffing a final cigarette and draining the dregs of someone's bottle of Jose Cuervo as the sun comes up.

Some middle-aged guy from New Jersey is noodling away on an acoustic guitar and somebody tells him to either play a song or put it down. He strums a few chords and in a raw-throated rusty voice, sings a handful of stories about love, loss, redemption and desperation with a world-weariness and sincerity that makes the roomful of sleepy drunks sit up and take notice.

Bruce Springsteen's Devils and Dust is not the kind of album you put on to liven up a party, but rather the sort of thing you listen to when the frivolity has passed.

This is not a typical collection of muscular anthemic rock 'n' roll about cars, girls and the good old days. Devils and Dust is a stark, stripped-down series of sketches of life on the margins of society. Foregoing the big rowdy sound of the E Street Band, this album harkens back to earlier efforts like Ghost of Tom Joad and Nebraska.

The instrumentation is generally understated and sparse, centering on Springsteen's acoustic guitar with minimal drums and percussion and a subtle keyboard wash in the background. Devils and Dust's quiet intensity is a long way from the bombast of "Born to Run" or "Born in the USA."

As might have been deduced from his many appearances on behalf of John Kerry during the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Springsteen is not a big fan of the Iraq war, and the title track is an intense and haunting statement conceived as part of a conversation between soldiers in Iraq:

"Well I've got God on my side
And I'm just trying to survive
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love
Fear's a dangerous thing
It can turn your heart black you can trust
It'll take your God filled soul
Fill it with devils and dust"

There's a sort of Southwestern thread running through many of the songs, with Spanish words sprinkled through the lyrics and cowboy imagery used repeatedly.

The political title track aside, the focus is mainly on Springsteen the storyteller telling tales of redemption. "Reno" tells the story of a depressing liaison with a prostitute that has aroused controversy for its explicit lyrics and imagery. "Hitter" chronicles the experience of a journeyman bareknuckle boxer who has come home for a rest. The moving "Matamoros Banks" is about an illegal immigrant who drowns trying to cross the border from Mexico to the United States. The stories are mostly about people at, or at least near the bottom--ragged cowboys, runaways, losers seeking a fresh start.

But it's not all darkness and gloom, a pair of love songs, "Maria's Bed" and "All I'm Thinkin' About," lighten things up, with Springsteen showing off his falsetto on the latter tune.

The accompanying DVD directed by Danny Clinch is in some ways superior to the album itself. Featuring intense and intimate performances of five of the best songs on the album, it comes about as close to duplicating the aforementioned fantasy concert as anything short of the real thing is likely to. It doesn't feature any fancy special effects or an all-star band, it's just the Boss and his guitar on a straightback chair in what looks like an abandoned hotel room. He doesn't even look into the camera. He just strums a few chords, throws back his head and sings in a rough and ready rasp.

Suddenly it feels like dawn around the kitchen table.

Copyright 2005 The Yomiuri Shimbun

In a non-published list let me just add that among the other discs in heavy rotation at the Woodshed are the new Loudon Wainwright III "Here Come the Choppers," lots of new John Prine and Sam Bush's "Ice Caps - peaks of Telluride" --go and buy them all now!

No comments: