By Ken Tucker
Bruce Springsteen first went downbeat in solitary earnest on 1982's Nebraska . Then, he was still enough of a hellion to allow a bit of exhilaration to edge into his voice as he summoned up the thoughts of thrill-killer Charlie Starkweather or the unemployed, gun-waving Johnny 99. Thirteen years later, on The Ghost of Tom Joad , he went social-realist solemn, attempting some musical synthesis of John Steinbeck and John Ford that often resulted in stifling formal constraint.
The new Devils & Dust -produced, like 2002's The Rising , by Brendan O'Brien and frequently underpinned by soft female backing vocals, a few orchestral strings, and a rhythm section (O'Brien on bass, Steve Jordan on drums)-stands somewhere between Nebraska and Joad in terms of impact and quality. There are a few dry patches here, such as "Matamoros Banks," where the minimal melody can't carry the weight of the portentous message being delivered. But this album doesn't merely find the middle ground between those two earlier releases: Its best songs break new ground for Springsteen.
On "Maria's Bed" and "All I'm Thinkin' About," he tries out, with great success, a different vocal register: a daringly sinuous falsetto that gives tremendous urgency to the pleasures and salvation of the flesh. "I keep my heart in my work, my troubles in my head / And I keep my soul in Maria's bed," he trills, a white Al Green exulting in southern country-soul. On the other song, he uses the voice to embody a kid putting away childish things to become happily addled by a girl with "sweet brown legs." The increasingly intense repetition of the phrase "All I'm thinkin' about is you, babe" is a metaphor for a quivering horniness that's both sly and bold.
He's trying different compositional strategies as well. Even in his gulping, yowling, Dylan-drunk youth, Springsteen never crammed as many words into a song as he does on "Black Cowboys": Its rushed lines burst with the details of how a kid he calls Rainey Williams finds his frail sense of innocence and comfort steadily destroyed by a succession of small betrayals from the adult world. Springsteen barely takes the time to nail down an end-rhyme before (as Chuck Berry would say) motorvating into the next verse, scattering in his path strikingly precise images such as a "smile that was fixed in a face that was never off-guard."
This same notion, that youthful hope and ardor too often get wiped away by the meanness of the world, is what makes another song here, "Long Time Comin', " one of the most languidly beautiful Springsteen has ever recorded, in part because it offers an adamant alternative to the standard rock trope that to grow up you have to give up. In its place is the suggestion that the challenges of adult life can be exciting and nourishing if you handle yourself and others with honor.
Singing at a full-throated gallop, this narrator tells us he's been married for a while (to Rosie-the Rosie of "Rosalita" so long ago?); that he's got a couple of kids and another on the way; that he's made some mistakes in his life and his marriage, but he's having a moment of clarity now. As a soft steel guitar and a violin waft up, turning the tune into a country reel, Springsteen's voice becomes exultant, his character promising Rosie, as he pats her swollen belly, that he "ain't gonna fuck it up this time." Turning to his offspring, he avows that he now realizes, "in this godforsaken world," the most precious gift he can give them would be "that your mistakes would be your own"-that (to paraphrase the biblical language he taps into elsewhere) he's not going to be a father who visits his sins upon his children.
Time-and the times we live in-hangs heavily over this album. The often weary-sounding 55-year-old man on this brooding, E Street Band-less album shares none of the qualities found in, say, the title of his most exuberant early record: He's not wild, he's certainly not innocent, and the only time he does the E Street shuffle anymore in public is when a stadium full of revelers inspires him to shake off the ruminativeness that is now his primary creative mode. Sometimes, on this collection consisting of a dozen new songs plus a DVD showing him performing five of them, it's all he can do to tap his booted toe in time to the couple of chords he's scratching out on the acoustic guitar that dominates most of the record.
This release isn't the measured, grand gesture that The Rising was; that recording captured-assiduously, humbly, yet boldly-one man's response to 9/11, in emotions ranging from grief to affirmation. Devils & Dust is simpler on every level except (crucially) the emotional one. It's a series of scenes and rough sketches, portraits of men at various turning points in their lives-abandoning adolescence with high hopes ("All I'm Thinkin' About"), facing down middle age with tempered or dashed expectations ("All the Way Home"; the title song) or with renewed faith ("Leah"; "Maria's Bed"; "Jesus Was an Only Son").
To make sure you won't try to read autobiography into the album, Springsteen frequently assumes different identities-a bare-knuckled boxer in "The Hitter"; a morose schmo getting a blow job from a hooker in "Reno." (The latter actually earns Springsteen his first-ever adult-content advisory, with its straight-shootin' lingo about anal sex, and though I dig profane bluntness in such settings, I wish he didn't feel obliged to have the guy tell us, "It wasn't the best I ever had, not even close" after spending the previous couple of minutes limning a depressing hotel tableau, spelling the point out in detail.) He also tells tales: of a poor kid reading and dreaming about "Black Cowboys"; of the desperate Mexican man drowning while attempting an illegal entry into the United States in "Matamoros Banks."
The DVD side of Devils & Dust finds Springsteen in a setting appropriate to the disc's mood: alone in a dark room, his singing, strumming, and puffing on a harmonica interspersed with remarks about how the new tunes are "all songs about souls that are in danger or at risk . . . through what the world is bringing to them." In other words, this is, among other things, his second-term Bush album.
It's Springsteen's gift here to acknowledge the harrowing burdens that only increase as one ages in this increasingly hemmed-in, dangerous world of ours (the word "fear" arises more than once-as "a powerful thing" in one song; as "a dangerous thing" in another). And he shakes off the pressure, exhaustion, and depression of that weight by endowing his characters with a great spiritual resilience and a core, hard-won sense of their own dignity. That's what gives Devils & Dust its drama, its complication-its deep knowledge that, for every celebratory moment Springsteen has created over the course of his career, he knows there are also moments of reckoning or rebuke that can make celebration impossible.