“Now every woman and every man/They want to take a righteous stand/Find the love that God wills/And the faith that He commands,” sings Bruce Springsteen in the title track of his thirteenth studio album, Devils & Dust. God has always had a place in Springsteen’s cosmology, just a notch or two below girls, Telecaster guitars and the New Jersey Turnpike. As far back as the mid-1970s, Springsteen was writing allegorical songs about Adam and Cain, and trying to talk the girl off her front porch with lines like “We’re ridin’ out tonight to case the Promised Land.” But Devils & Dust is so thoroughly suffused with religious imagery it might as well be a gospel album. There’s that somber title song, about a soldier whose “God-filled soul” is corrupted by warfare; a retelling of the Old Testament story of Leah; and a slew of biblical elocutions about “fiery lanterns,” “blood consecrated” streets, “higher ground,” “sweet salvation,” “Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones” and “the garden at Gethsemane,” where Jesus “beseeched his Heavenly Father to remove/The cup of death from his lips.” Not even Bob Dylan at the height of his born-again phase managed to shoehorn a King James verb like “beseeched” into a song.
At least one critic–Slate‘s Stephen Metcalf–has detected a little political calculation on Devils & Dust, an attempt to appeal to “the growing religiosity of the country.” But Springsteen, who was last seen in the autumn of 2004 barnstorming in support of John Kerry, isn’t exactly going out of his way to woo red-state audiences. In fact, his God-talk is less likely a matter of politics–or, for that matter, theology–than poetry. In the first decade of his career, Springsteen established himself as a rock and roller in the heroic tradition of Chuck Berry, Elvis and Dylan, but with the release of Nebraska in 1982, he launched a secondary career as a balladeer in the Woody Guthrie mode, flattening his accent into a vaguely Okie twang and writing stark, scratchy songs that sound like they were unearthed by Alan Lomax. The current album finds Springsteen playing that folkie role to the hilt–on the thirty-minute DVD on the flip side of the CD, Springsteen performs five songs on a battered acoustic guitar in an atmospheric old farmhouse–and what, after all, is more evocative of old-timey authenticity than a few references to the hills of Nazareth? Sooner or later, every singer-songwriter with a taste for Gothic Americana reaches for his bottle slide and starts quoting the Good Book.
Springsteen’s previous folk records were the bleakest of his career. Nebraska‘s ten songs, recorded in brutally bare-bones style at home on Springsteen’s four-track recorder, were beautifully written tales of economic desperation and crime set against a desolate Reagan-era backdrop. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) was a bit more orchestrated–a few songs featured a backing band–but for the most part the aesthetic was Guthriesque campfire vérité, and the lyrics, focusing on migrant workers and other marginalized characters, were Springsteen’s grimmest and most explicitly political. Devils & Dust is a sequel to those earlier albums, but the mood is lighter (the record includes a few love songs), and the arrangements make concessions to pop. Producer Brendan O’Brien–who did admirable work, on a far grander scale, on Springsteen’s 2002 rock album, The Rising–places him and his twanging folk-blues guitar in the foreground but adds some texture: keyboards, horns, a string section, even touches of sitar, electric sarangi and other instruments not likely to have been found kicking around Leadbelly’s front porch. Springsteen fans who found it hard to warm to Nebraska and Tom Joad will appreciate songs like “Long Time Comin’,” with its rousing sing-along chorus, and, especially, “All the Way Home,” the album’s closest thing to a genuine rock song, with a wash of guitars and a cracking snare drum.
Those songs mine a familiar Springsteen theme, the hard-luck guy redeemed by the love of a good woman. But there are departures. By far the most discussed new song is “Reno,” a short story about a Mexican man’s visit to a hooker, which includes some frank references to anal sex and various other erotic acts. Though far from gratuitously blue, the song has earned Springsteen his first-ever parental advisory sticker and led to a ban on Devils & Dust in Starbucks stores. (One can only hope that Springsteen regards his Not Latte Appropriate status as a badge of honor.) The truth is, parents have little to fear from “Reno,” whose Spartan tunelessness would doubtless send their children running in the direction of the nearest Ludacris or Kelly Clarkson record.