He's done this before. Every few years or so, Bruce Springsteen, one of rock's pre-eminent singer-songwriters, takes us to bleak places in his music, introduces us to a cast of desperate, downtrodden characters while capturing a sense of the times.
He did this on the 1982 Nebraska album, a brilliant, acidic appraisal of Ronald Reagan's America. In 1995, he unleashed the particularly bitter The Ghost of Tom Joad, which chronicled those who fell through the cracks during the boom years of the Clinton administration. And 2002's The Rising, a decent though bloated record, centered on the dashed lives and dreams of America post-Sept. 11.
Now, well into the second Bush term as talk of spiritual fortification permeates pop culture, the Boss has dropped another mostly acoustic set that holds a mirror up to the country: Devils & Dust. The characters this time - an inner city kid, a prostitute, a drowned illegal immigrant whose tale unfolds in reverse - seem to be in search of some sort of salvation, be it through travel or sex or spirituality.
In stores today, the CD, the artist's 13th studio album, has great intentions. As the songs go from slow and winding to bright and bouncy and back again, the material radiates the singer's warmth and empathy for his characters.
But Devils & Dust, produced by Brendan O'Brien who oversaw The Rising, probably won't become your favorite Springsteen record: Musically, it just doesn't gel. The arrangements feel forced and inconsistent. Many of the songs meander; there's seldom real melody. Lyrically, however, the New Jersey homeboy is still at the top of his game. In certain spots, the album offers some of his finest writing to date.
The CD is off to a nice start with the penetrating title track, told through the eyes of a soldier: I got my finger on the trigger /But I don't know who to trust/When I look into your eyes/There's just devils and dust.
Perhaps the most affecting lines of the song are the ones with the most spiritual resonance: 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 ... . The message comes across clearly with Springsteen's matter-of-fact vocal approach and the organically dramatic arrangement, which begins with the artist strumming rhythmically on the acoustic guitar and builds to a full treatment with harmonica, horns and strings. But it never feels bombastic. It is perhaps the best moment on the album.
Elsewhere on Devils & Dust, Springsteen tells elaborately detailed stories, affecting different voices (a Western drawl, a Southern twang, a gentle falsetto) to bring the characters to life. And although the stories are generally interesting, they don't always work as songs. "Reno," an explicit tale of a lonely man who spends the evening with a prostitute only to feel lonelier afterward, goes nowhere. The piece ripples with graphic details that nonetheless fit the subject matter. But O'Brien's hollow arrangement and Springsteen's somewhat detached vocals fall flat.
"Black Cowboys" centers on an inner city kid who runs away from home after his mother's interest turns toward a shiftless drug dealer. Springsteen doesn't sing as much as speaks the lyrics, and the generic folk arrangement adds no lift. The singer, however, seems less awkward on the up-tempo numbers. "All the Way Home" rocks the hardest, though you'd like more of that full-bodied singing he employed on The Rising.
Unlike Nebraska and Tom Joad, the new record boasts varied shades and textures. "Jesus Was an Only Son," for example, rolls on soft gospel harmonies and a tasteful organ line. You just wish the musical backdrops were more creative and colorful because Springsteen's writing is generally so gripping and concise.
Released on the DualDisc format (the other side of the CD is a DVD), Devils & Dust contains a surround-sound mix plus a 30-minute film featuring interviews and footage of the legend performing at home.
As it stands, Devils & Dust, though not a bad record because the Boss doesn't make bad records, feels a little half-baked. His earnestness and substantive storytelling are always appreciated. But the music, despite the desolateness of the stories, should have been strong enough to pull you in and keep you there.