“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.
The problem with the lyrics in “Reno” and other songs on Devils & Dust lies elsewhere. Apparently, the Boss has been spending time curled up with high-minded literary fiction (“The sun bloodied the sky and sliced through the hotel blinds”; “In the Valle de dos Rios, smell of mock orange filled the air”; “We rode with the vaqueros down into cool rivers of green”; etc.). “Reno” even comes with footnotes: The lyric booklet includes a glossary of terms, like “Amatitlan” (“Central Mexican River”), that Springsteen peppers liberally throughout the album.
On Devils & Dust Springsteen the melodist has gone missing, and the poet has turned into a poetaster. Springsteen started out as an exuberantly verbose lyricist clearly under Dylan’s spell, but by the time he made The River (1980), he’d evolved the spare, brisk narrative style that’s been his hallmark ever since. The result was some of the best American songwriting of the past three decades, fusing autobiography, rock-and-roll mythology and folklore and backed by surging, transcendent music. Consider these verses from Springsteen’s first Top 10 hit, “Hungry Heart” (1980):
Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack.
I went out for a ride, and I never went back.
Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing,
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going….
I met her in a Kingstown bar.
We fell in love I knew it had to end.
We took what we had, and we ripped it apart.
Now here I am down in Kingstown again….
These lines are almost entirely monosyllabic; they eschew adjectives and flowery language. But “Hungry Heart” conjures a whole world, and a worldview, and its strangely festive melody and honking baritone sax and gliding background vocals are sublime–and you can dance to it. The songs on Devils & Dust are by contrast saddled with adjectives–the moon is sallow, the hills are rutted, the sky is pearl–fancy literary language and portentous religious imagery. Worse, many of the songs are set against a mythic Southwestern landscape, all rolling thunder and mountain passes and “harsh scrub pine,” with horses and mustañeros (“mustangers”) wandering through. Has Bruce Springsteen decided he’d rather be Cormac McCarthy?
This oppressively self-serious album, reeking of research and literary pretension, is especially surprising coming from Springsteen, who over the course of a dozen previous studio records has achieved a monumental and decidedly literary feat, bringing to life a milieu–North Jersey and environs–as rich and distinctive as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. His songwriting has moved away from that home turf in recent years, in large part, I think, because he has ceased to regard himself as a compelling subject. Springsteen’s best work has always been confessional. This is true not just of his overtly autobiographical material, like the devastating cycle of songs about his father, but of all his albums up to Tom Joad. His characters were variously named–Scooter and Johnny and Bobby and Frank–but one story was being told: that of a son of Freehold, New Jersey, and his search for love and meaning.
On Devils & Dust, that man is present only as a narrator of other people’s stories: a semi-pro boxer, a black cowboy, Jesus, Mary. On the DVD, Springsteen declares his desire to “channel the voices” of his characters, but his ventriloquism simply doesn’t carry the emotional force of his confessions, and no amount of folkie flat-picking can make it feel any more genuine. At this stage of his career, real musical authenticity from Springsteen may mean laying aside the acoustic guitar and the Okie accent and the sepia-toned storytelling, and once again trying to make music about his own life–the life of a 55-year-old multimillionaire family man. This may be an uncomfortable task for Springsteen, with his romantic attachment to working-class experience, but challenges can bring out the best in songwriters, and he’s done this sort of thing before: His finest record of the last two decades, Tunnel of Love (1987), was a chronicle of his crumbling first marriage. Here’s hoping that the next Springsteen album will have fewer mustañeros and more Bruce.