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CD Review: Bruce Springsteen – Devils & Dust

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First posted on Mark Is Cranky:

Every true music fan has in their pocket a short list: the artists who hold special meaning. Our relationships to those artists are different from the rest. Each release means something. They’re not just records, they’re events, they’re signposts…repositories of all related memories: past, present and future.

Shortly after I cracked open Bruce Springsteen’s Devils and Dust, before a single note was heard, a couple of very important memories fell out. The older of the two happened back in 1982. On a routine trip to the University of Maine bookstore I found an astounding and pleasant surprise: Nebraska. This was back before the internet or magazines such as Ice, so there was no advance warning. Here I was on my usual path, attempting to quench the music thirst and I’d been handed an ocean of relief. I remember the feel of the shrink wrapped cover, maybe even a little of that plastic smell. Back at the dorm, when I waved the album in the air so as to tease my friend Ed, his jaw dropped open in awe (we had recently become so anamoured of the Springsteen bootlegs “Live at the Agora” and “Fire From The Fingertips” that we’d been listening to them to the exclusion of most other music).

To be honest, I can’t quite remember my initial reaction to the music. Thematically, the material followed Springsteen’s penchant for following characters through their bad and good. Musically, this was not The River. Instead, things were all stripped down. I liked what I heard and instinctively knew that it was great….but at the same time…I just wasn’t ready for it and didn’t know what to think.

A more recent memory was again of a solo Springsteen release. I brought my new copy of The Ghost of Tom Joad over to my fiance’s house to give it a first listen. With the “Nebraska incident” fresh in my mind, me & Linda sat on the couch and listened to the record straight though while reading from the lyric sheet. It’s easy for me to tear up thinking about this now, because I remember being just so happy at being able to share my discovery of the music with her in this way (something I was never able to do in my first marriage).

Now it’s time for Devils and Dust to make its own way. Here I sit very late at night, in a hotel room on the coast of Maine. Linda (you know her as “The Wife”) is sleeping soundly, swallowed by the enormous king size bed. In the quiet, I find that it’s tough to put the old memories aside to make room for the new ones.

    You have to constantly be writing from your own inner core in some fashion I find y’know?…

    No matter how you dress it, y’know?…

    Whether, in my early records where I was sort of dressing it whether it was in New York City or whether it was on the Jersey shore or whether it was set in the West. You’re still writing from the essential core of who you are.

    That has has to be at place in every song or the song dies.

    The point of it was your own voice is supposed to, if you’re doing it correctly, is supposed to disappear into the voice of the person..uhm..you’re singing about and who’s telling you the story.

    What would they do? What wouldn’t they do? How would they behave in this circumstance? The rhythm of their speech…that’s where the music comes in.

This was how Springsteen explained his method of narrative and song construction (from the DVD side of Devils and Dust).

Yes, in that American troubadour style of storytelling, Springsteen does indeed disappear into the varied cast of characters…to discover how they’ll make it through their long ago, and their tomorrow.

Unlike both Nebraska and Tom Joad, the characters here are a little more diverse. There’s the conflicted soldier of the title track, the hopeful parent of “Long Time Coming”, the crushed romantic (“Reno”), the motherless son (“Silver Palomino”) and even Jesus Christ (the powerful “Jesus Was An Only Child”).

    These are all songs about people whose souls are in danger…or at risk through where they are in the world or what the world is bringing to them.

    That’s a human constant.

    And whether people are religious or spiritual or not…that risk is something people instinctively feel on a daily basis.

Some of the people here navigate through their trouble successfully. Others meet with tragic ends. Devils and Dust ends with the sad reverse-chronology of a man’s attempt at finding a better life in the United States by way of the Rio Grande river. Given the title track’s ambivalence toward war, “Matamoros Banks” seemed like a fitting conclusion (people die ‘for us’ for many reasons).

Musically, Devils and Dust has much more of a full band sound than it’s cousin-recordings with Springsteen handling many of the instruments but with backing help from a variety of guests including the rock-solid Steve Jordan on drums, Dan Federici on keyboards and Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell on vocals. The DVD side of the DualDisc (I’ll refrain from comment on this new format for now, as their are good and bad points) has Bruce playing five of the tunes in a solo acoustic guitar format. “Reno” and “Matamoros Banks” are far mor powerful in this format.

I wonder if, many years from now, I’ll look back at my introduction to Devils and Dust and remember the vacation that embraced it…that a band named Green Day played a sold-out show right around the corner, that it rained for most of the day, that I wished I could never leave this city…that I wrote this review on the 12th floor of this old hotel.

We’ll see.

I hope.

(More fine reading on Devils & Dust can be found here)

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About Mark Saleski

  • OK, so he’s got a lot of deep meaningful narratives about people struggling with fate and blah, blah, blah. Does he have any actual interesting MELODY going on? Are there any real SONGS here?

  • I like the picture on the cover…not enough for the $4 more I’d have to pay to buy the actual CD instead of getting it from iTunes tho.


  • so is there some rule somewhere that the only way you can evaluate music is if it’s got a melody? it’s gotta have “real songs”? whatever that means.

    in fact, yes…there’s some great songs on it. not that you’d be able to recognize ’em.

    carry on, oh self-appointed arbitors
    of all things aesthetic.

  • ClubhouseCancer

    Woah, Mark.
    You’re a self-appointed arbitor, too. We all are; Blogcritics, you know!

    In the other D&D thread, I listed a bunch of reasons why I didn’t like the album. I’m glad to hear the reasons you liked it, and I’m glad you did. You seem to concentrate on the stories and the characters, and I on the music and the songs, which I find lacking. After your review, I’ll sure pay more attention to the narratives.

    But, c’mon, Mark, that falsetto? Ugh.

  • guest

    Just came across this board and have to say that along with the Pat Metheny Group “The Way Up” and now “Devils and Dust” we have two great albums. The methods that Bruce and Pat use to communicate may be different, but the strength of what they are trying to communicate from within is so strong and powerful, that its a real treat to hear these guys both in there 50’s still making great artistic statements.
    I think its real easy to slag off bruces vocals, “lack” of melody that some people complain about, but thats when you know Bruce has won. If he wanted to he could hire the Berlin Philaharmonic as backing band, but this rough diamond is a diamond nonethless.

  • hey, cc…there’s a bit on the dvd where bruce talks about why he uses varying voices including that falsetto.

    i’m not saying that you should like it but there is a reason for it.

    dang, commenting before coffee….not good.

  • mark, that was a beautiful piece of writing.


    im listenin to the record now. i have to say its one of the very, very, VERY few Springsteen records i’ve fallen in love with immediately.

    It’s up there with Nebraska, and whilst my initial thoughts when hearing it in a record store were “Tom Joad”, this feels nowhere near as bleak. Much as i love the Tom Joad record, the melodies on this Devils & Dust malarkey are just infinately more appealing and memorable.

    great post, man.

  • unlike Pat, who was a great Postman.

  • glad you liked it duke (the writing too, thanks!)

    it’s still on my daily pile ‘o cds to listen to.

  • Deborah

    Personally I’m worried about Bruce’s own soul. Is no one concerned about the extremely graphic (what could be consider pornography, but I know that is up to eveyone’s own personal tastes) song Reno? It is a cheap shot from a man I have admired and respected for years. It is a cheap shot at women in general and one of my friends said she saw him saying in an interview, it was for his wife!!!! I hope she got that wrong. It serves no musical purpose and seems to me to be what a shock jock would sing about if he could but, since he can’t, he just talks about it. Please explain why he put that on this album. Okay so we all think these things and some of us write them down but with all of the choices he had, why did he feel compelled to go Eminem on us at this stage of his life. Every thing about him has become so dark and yes there is darkness in the world but one need not wallow in it or raise it up and celebrate it by including it in a work of this magnitude amoung some other very important songs. He seems personally conflicted on some sort of spiritual level, more so than ever before. I think he is personally at a very critical juncture in his life. Maybe it’s because he has never been 55 before and death is closer but it’s that way for all of us who have grown up with him, so to speak. Something is going on with him and I pray he makes the right choices for himself and for his family. Something’s just not right with him.

  • In case you haven’t noticed it, we are all closer to death these days. And if you arn’t all ‘conflicted on some sort of spiritual level’, then God help you!

  • Reno ‘celebrates’ darkness.

    no. dealing with an issue does not equate to celebrating it.

    the character in Reno is clearing attempting to deal with a lost partner/lover/wife/whatever. the grittiness of the language reflects the ugliness goin on in the character’s head.

    one of the most depressing songs ever written with so much relatively explicit sex.

  • if bruce says Reno is written for his wife, i would imagine the sentiment is along the lines of “I can go get it on with all these hookers and get up to all sorts, but the only encounter ever meant a damn thing was with you”

    which is a pretty shitty response in general, ie, “it meant nothing, honey”. surely that makes it even worse?? you put our lives in jeopardy an it didnt even MEAN anything?

    But i think Bruce maybe means somethin else. Somethin a bit deeper than that. who knows? im no springsteen expert. this is the only record of his i can remember ever gettin on the week of release and fallin in love with the damn thing immediately. The others i love (tom joad and nebraska) were all after-the-fact purchases. Long after the fact, most likely.

  • and starbucks has banned the cd from their stores.

    another reason to avoid corporate food/drink.

  • what higher reccomendation for the album can there be??

  • aside from al & dave hatin’ it, none!

  • Mark, I love this review. This is the only kind if review I really enjoy, and the only kind that I think actually conveys the power of certain things – the one that acknowledges how deep the experience goes. TS Eliot said that the critical moment can only come when you have surrendered yourself to the work, and recovered a self that’s been changed by it. I love reading a review that give me the sense that the reviewer’s been on the journey.

    Thanks so much!

  • thanks for the kind words.

    the CD is still on my heavy rotation list.

  • For the record Mark, I do not hate this album. Granted, I’m skeptical, but I have not yet heard it. Perhaps it will turn out to have some catchy songs that I just can’t get out of my head. Don’t know till I hear it.

  • If you’re my age Bruce was The Man. I haven’t heard the album yet, but I was shocked to hear about that song that is supposed to be so graphic. Maybe I don’t remember right but he always seemed to be non-misogynist, which is unsual for someone so masculine in the rock world. Ugh! Or is it not that way? Anyone have the lyrics?

    I didn’t even know that Starbucks sold albums. I hate their coffee; the cold drinks all taste like those plastic cups; it’s a ten part saga to order a cup of tea which is then too hot to drink. It’s a perfect passive/aggressive thwarting of every impulse anyone ever had to sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea. Now they sell albums too.


    Alright, another cranky old man makes his appearance, welcome Cerulean! Why , back in my day, if you wanted coffee you had to rub the beans together with rocks to grind ’em down, then gnaw ice off a glacier for water, hold the beans and ice chips in your hand and plunge them into a lava flow to boil it up, and we liked it!

  • Deborah

    To the lovely Linda (comment 11) I addressed your first point in my first writing and to the second God is all good with me. I’m not conflicted. I know who I am and what I’m doing and one of the many things I do is work with teens through music. You want to see a conflicted group of people I hope you spend time with young people. Some of them are already at the low point that Bruce seems to be and it’s taken him 57 years to get there. I try to get them to see decency in relationships and mutual respect…then an adult, one who’s face adorns the walls in my home pulls this on me (I have a 4’x4′ oil painting of Born to Run on my living room wall). My 16 year old son bought this cd for me for Mother’s Day. I had a lot of explaining to do and I don’t think it’s my place to try to cover for this man. The song is porn, it serves no purpose on the album. Bruce is more than capable of writing about lost love without depicting illict, illegal, graphic sex acts to get one through that loss. Come on call it what it is. It was unnecessary. To Mark you are correct, celebrate was probably not the best choice of words but what I was saying is that it raises it up to a point where we can’t help but notice it. I guess glorifying the darkness might be a better way to put it. But I chose celebrate because that’s what I have always felt listening to new Bruce songs was for me…a celebration of his talents his writing and the insights he gives us about ourselves on a spritual level. I know and most adults know how base we can become, that doesn’t need to be pointed out to me in song. That’s what Hip Hop does and I try to avoid that at all costs again as it serves no purpose, to me, at least.

  • it’s ‘unnecessary’ because it might offend somebody? sorry, i don’t agree.

    this is one of the most emotionlly raw songs he’s ever recorded, and fits right in with the only ‘theme’ of the record, people dealing with the good and bad in their lives.

  • Deborah

    I am not offended by the song, I am appalled. What I find offensive are the sycophants who will defend it because it came from Bruce. I love this man’s work more than you will ever know and because of that “relationship” I am truly concerned about him as I stated before because, though I don’t really know him on a personal level, this seems to be a statement about him on an entirely new level. I have thought and been telling folks that because the right tried to claim him for so long and he denounced strongly having any ties what so ever there that this was maybe his way of saying “here, in your face conservatives. If my teaming up with Kerry wasn’t statement enough let this be a clear message, because I wrote Born In the USA and sing about my home town, doesn’t make me a midwestern Bible thumper”…and it really is a song directed politically under the gise of this steamy illict encounter. It doesn’t make the imagery any easier to explain to my teens but I understand his motivation behind writing it…if that were the case, otherwise, I am at a loss…and so is he…and those who defend the song. Adult accountability. Our country needs it. When we see or hear of adults doing something illegal we need to speak up about it stop it,not write a song about it. What is Bruce saying to us about his relationship to women? What about womens rights here and in other countries? Women being bought and sold? Is that acceptable? It seems that way to a teen when we sing along with the words. So much for being a Human Rights activist also. It sends too many conflicting messages. The song is about a weak pathetic human being who when scorned, or has his feeling hurt, doesn’t do the work necessary intellectually and spiritually to get through it but rather goes out and like an adolescent would inflicts further pain on society through actions that are selfish and self serving. Now there’s something to sing about. Bruce has brought us songs that shed light on the human condition in the past without sinking this low.

  • why is this song a statement about bruce’s relationship to women?

    from what i’ve read (and from what Springsteen has said in the dvd), most of the songs are from the characters’ points of view…how they are dealing with what life or their current circumstances has dealt to them.

    this is no different than in the tradition of country music, where songs were written from the point of view of the criminal (was Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ glorifying murder? ‘i shot a man in reno, just to watch him die’).


    bruce-defending sycophant

  • bhw

    Has the notion of narrative voice or artistic persona really disappeared from the universe?

    Has anyone locked up Stephen King yet or at least held an intervention?!

    Thought police — where are you when we need you?

  • JR

    Has the notion of narrative voice or artistic persona really disappeared from the universe?

    The what of what? You know, you can’t just throw random words together and expect to make any sense.

    I think what Bruce Springsteen is openly admitting actually constitutes some kind of crime. Someone should investigate and press charges. Rock stars shouldn’t be above the law.

    And we definitely need to get Johnny Cash off the streets, ’cause I just heard him on the radio again, bragging about killing that man in Reno.


    …And put Waylon, Willie, and Merle in there, too! Obviously there were part of some mysterious conspiracy.

  • Deborah

    And Mark, I have had that debate with teenagers too. You are seemingly an above average word smith, though by that gift alone one does not necessarily possess intelligence nor common sense so I will go on. Bruce doesn’t live in a vacuum. None of us do. Words mean things, duh. The picture he is painting is not appropriate and deep down you know it. If you would admit that I could stop. You know how prostitution effects women and society or at least I hope you do and so does he. I don’t care who’s perspective he is writing from this is a low point for him. He is obviously free to write and sing about anything he choses and again obviously the label went along with it but that said, those things don’t make it appropriate.

  • though by that gift alone one does not necessarily possess intelligence nor common sense so I will go on

    ah yes, sooner or later the debate devolves to attacks. nice. you’ve added a tasty bit of condescention too. nice to spice things up.

    i’m admitting nothing, because there’s nothing to admit.

    you don’t get to reframe the debate because you’re offended with the lyrics.

  • Deborah

    You’re a feisty opponent in that you keep coming back for more but the comprehension level just isn’t there and that is starting wear thin. I am not offended by the lyrics, free to write whatever etc as stated already (don’t want to be redundant in my effort to further clarify.) I am concerned about Bruce and where he is in life (as I would be concerned about anyone if they showed this writing to me)that he felt the need to present to the world this graphic scene which truly is not worth my time nor is this “debate” much longer. Take the CD to your local high school and sing a few bars to the female teachers there and let me know their reaction. They get to deal with our kids and their lovely attitudes more often than I. Check it out and get back to me. Pardon me now, I must go listen to Point Blank to gain some perspective on this Johnny Cash dilema. Be well.

  • no deborah.

    i fully comprehend what you’re saying…i just don’t agree.

    gees, are you related to dave nalle or somethin’?

  • since when did teenagers care what bruce springsteen says these days?

  • Deborah

    …I just read Dave’s blog about Willie and the toll road…it wouldn’t be so bad to be related to Dave…he writes really well…