The Boss is back, changed on the surface but it's a thin surface. Deep down he's the same Bruce Springsteen he always was, showing us the extraordinary within the ordinary, the romance in the mundane, the tragedy in common mistakes and the glory in simple lives.
Like Nebraska (1982), Devils & Dust wants to break your heart and do it awfully gently, but it's not as extreme or experimental as Nebraska was. Much of it is clearly inspired by his opposition to the new conservatism in America, and in the title track calls for the courage to be kind in the face of fear "I've got God on my side / I'm just trying to survive / What if what you do to survive / Kills the things you love / fear's a powerful thing" but it's no polemic rant, more of a quiet plea. Instead of ending in a pounding stadium chorus, it only builds up as high as a lonely harmonica solo.
Although the album has its share of sing along rock in tracks like "All the Way Home" and "Long time coming," Springsteen mostly replaces the stadium-friendly arrangements with delta blues and spiritual-flavoured mixes. These are lightly spiced with the odd swish of percussionist Steve Jordan's brushes, and the pulse of Brendan O'Brian's bass. Occasional, hesitant backing vocals sound like the singers were absentmindedly humming in the background. Springsteen's acoustic guitar, from-the-gut vocals and unmistakeable melodies evoke a dusty cowboyish glamour, a special marriage of loneliness and freedom.
Devils & Dust is classic Springsteen, but he takes a few risks. "Matamoras Banks" tells about the death of an illegal immigrant who tries to reach America by river. But the song describes the drowning backwards, so the story ends at the hopeful beginning, "Meet me on the Matamoras banks". These are the words of a lover with whom the speaker never got to meet. The unfamiliar reverse order thins our skins because the mechanisms we usually use to avoid empathy don't work.
The characters in the songs, whose voices Springsteen seems to channel, not just adopt, are a wrenching combination of regret and good intentions. The voice of a man promising to do right by his woman ("I ain't gonna fuck it up this time"), or the mumbled, hardcore description of a bewildered sunset visit to a prostitute in Reno, are telling slices of life.
If you can handle some sadness, and loved Nebraska for its sparseness but found it a bit unfinished, you'll agree with what some Springsteen fans are still just whispering, for fear of being wrong: "It might be his best album yet."
If you don't want people to burn your albums, give them a reason not to! And I don't mean copy protection, which any idiot can circumvent using Media Player. Or a couple of videos that'll be shown ad nauseum on TV anyhow. Sony BMG seem to have figured this out. They prove it by including a genuinely great bonus DVD with the CD. It includes all the tracks in surround sound with their lyrics, and a movie of acoustic performances by Springsteen (with fascinating and sometimes funny interview interludes) filmed in a simple set of a dilapidated, wooden, small townhouse.
- Jean Barker WHAT OTHER CRITICS SAID
This is his 13th studio album and that's unlucky for the millions of devotees who will have bought it on trust, only to find it's a self indulgent rag bag of second rate songs. If you're not already into Springsteen please don't start here.- Liz Kershaw for BBC
Devils and Dust is twelve songs of assorted vintage and narrative setting, rendered with a subdued, mostly acoustic flair that smells of wood smoke and sparkles in the right places like stars in a clear Plains sky.- David Fricke for Rolling Stone (he gave it 4.5 stars out of 5)
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