To truly understand the power of Bruce Springsteen’s newest disc, Devils & Dust, one need only listen to its final track. The song, “Matamoros Banks”, contains all of the contradictions that make this — his 13th studio effort - such an emotionally resonating collection.
Opening with a simple, solemn acoustic guitar line, its opening verses speak of death and decay along the Rio Grande. “The turtles eat the skin from your eyes” and clothes give way to the river’s current. And yet, “Matamoros Banks” is as pure and sweet a love song as one will find, a poem of faith and connection offered by a lover separated by distance. “I long, my darling, for your kiss, for your sweet love I give God thanks,” he sings. The distance is palpable, almost physically felt. “Your sweet memory comes on the evenin’ wind,” he sings later. “I sleep and dream of holding you in my arms again.” “Matamoros Banks” can be read as a poem of redemption through faith and love or as a story in the Steinbeck mold, of love denied in a world that constrains the individual, beats on him.
In these competing claims, this tension between the harshness of the world and the holiness of the soul lies the power of Devil & Dust. And it is what both connects it to Springsteen’s previous work, while also giving its distinctiveness.
Devils & Dust has echoes of earlier Springsteen albums - most notably Nebraska, his 1982 rebuke of Ronald Reagan’s America, and The Ghost of Tom Joad, his prayer for those left behind during the go-go ’90s — it also pushes Springsteen’s themes onto a different plane and makes greater use of traditional non-rock musical styles and instrumentation than he has at any time in his career. There is a liberal use of country-tinged strings (a sweet fiddle line runs through “Long Time Comin'”) and dobro and - what will be shocking to some - a complete absence of electric guitar.
Taken as a whole, Devils & Dust can seem a bit difficult to categorize. It is, by turns, a country record, a folk record and even a bit of a rock record. It is thick with atmosphere, awash in violence and a shadowy mythology redolent of the Old West - or the Old West that exists in John Ford and Howard Hawks films - old noir films and detective novels. It is political record without any overt mention of politics, a collection of 12 songs that explore the edge of hope and loss and failure. This may not make a lot of traditional Springsteen fans happy, those fans clamoring for a reprise of 2002’s flawed gem, The Rising, a return to the working-class fire of Darkness on the Edge of Town or the fiery, end-of-youth masterpiece Born to Run.
This is the disc that had to be recorded now, the album that the times called for, an album for the age of George W. Bush and the war on terror. Devils & Dust is, at its core, a political allegory, a musical exploration of the theme explored by Langston Hughes in his poem “Let America Be America Again”, a poem that mourns the nation’s unfulfilled potential. It is a theme fleshed out through a song cycle in which the promise of love is subverted or unrequited, in which life beats the speakers down - ultimately ending with the strange and beautiful “Matamoros Banks”.
It is, as Jon Pareles writes in his review-cum-feature on the album in The New York Times, Springsteen’s “family values album”, though I would argue with anyone who views Springsteen’s values-driven agenda as a turn to the right. He remains popular music’s most consistent humanist, the one artist we can always count on to bring us back to the humanity in us all.
Devils & Dust, like his best work, is a re-imagining of America in the new millennium, a reconnection with the darkness deep in the country’s soul, a darkness evident in the rush to war in Iraq and the thirst for revenge, in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, in the meanness of a presidential administration that has no allegiance to the most vulnerable of our citizens. This is, of course, what the best art has always done, create something whole and new and boiling with energy from the moment in which the artist lives, from the lives around him.
The album, as David Fricke writes in Rolling Stone, “is… as immediate and troubling as this morning’s paper. These people are our neighbors, and these worries are Springsteen’s, too.” Bruce pulls no punches, biting off angry lines and spitting out a rare expletive on the sad yet jaunty “Long Time Comin'”, seeking redemption through a prostitute on the graphic but tender “Reno” or recounting the slow fall of a broken boxer who takes a fall on the brooding “The Hitter”.
Devils & Dust is an album of false hopes and busted connections, of lies and deceit and the need to somehow find that last little bit of strength that keeps us going but can’t. “I’ve got God on my side”, he sings in the mesmerizing title cut that opens the disc. It is a song that easily could be about Abu Ghraib. “I’m just trying to survive / But if what you do to survive / Kills the thing you love / Fear’s a powerful thing / It can turn your heart black you can trust / It’ll take your God filled soul / And fill it with devils and dust.”
There is an anger bubbling to the surface, a self-loathing — he wrote he song in 2003, after the start of the Iraq War, a war he opposed and criticized from the stage while on tour. The narrator knows he has crossed some unspoken line in some hazy desert war. He wants to do right, to “take a righteous stand / Find the love that God wills / The faith that He commands.” But faith is no longer enough to cleanse the stain from his heart and the mission — the president’s grand, God-inspired crusade, one based on a lie — has left him dead inside. There is little variation in the verses and the instrumentation is uncluttered — just Bruce’s guitar, producer Brendan O’Brien’s bass, Steve Jordan’s drums, some strings, some horns and Springsteen’s gut-wrenching harmonica break. And while the song has the feel of “Blood Brothers”, an E Street Band song from 1995’s Greatest Hits disc (and some of the late ’90s outtakes included on the Tracks box-set), it is far darker, burrows much deeper somehow, tunneling into the darkest part of the soul.
The songs that follow turn the disc into a search for redemption through the minefield of broken dreams and frayed relations, chance encounters and temporary salvation that lies, ultimately, just out of reach. Some of it is uplifting, but always undercut by desperation, the message being that you must take what you can of life while you can.
“Maybe your first choice, he’s gone”, the narrator sings to a woman in a bar in “All the Way Home”, the disc’s hardest rocker. “Well that’s all right / Baby I could walk you all the way home”. The song touches on the same theme as “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)” from The Rising, but the narrator is more badly beaten in the newer song, and the song’s final resolution is left unclear. Does he get to walk this woman home? Does she leave him at the bar? The questions are left unanswered leaving the listener to wonder.
“Maria’s Bed”, which has an unvarnished sweetness, is really a song of desperation - “I keep my heart in my work”, the narrator (who appears to be a border patrol agent) sings, “but trouble’s in my head / And I keep my soul in Maria’s bed”.
Ultimately, Devils & Dust does not break new ground. In many ways, it is rather conventional — a mostly acoustic collection that hearkens back to Bruce’s origins as a singer-songwriter — but it is this conventionality, in its acceptance of older American forms of music, where the disc hits its mark. The dobro, pedal steel and strings that flesh out the sometimes spare arrangements, the surprisingly nimble finger-picking, the falsetto yawps of the tender, rock-a-billy “All I’m Thinkin’ About” — all of it creates an emotional momentum characteristic of the best country and folk music and results in one of the most fully realized and satisfying collections of songs in Springsteen’s long career.
And it while it remains to be seen whether the disc storms up the charts the way The Rising did, it is clear — to me, at least — that Springsteen remains a vital and relevant voice at a time when so many artists do little more than explore their own vanity.