It’s a misnomer to call “Devils & Dust,” the new album from Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad Part II.” Yes, nearly all of the 12 songs on the new album were written in the mid-1990s during the “Joad” period; yes, Springsteen once again assumes his Oakie voice for several tracks; and, yes, most of “Devils & Dust” is acoustic.
But this new work is much more accessible than the minimalist “Tom Joad.” The diehards will call me a non-believer, but “Joad” is my least-favorite Springsteen album by a wide margin—and I’ve tried to like it, I really have. Unlike his first all-acoustic effort, 1982’s classic “Nebraska,” “Tom Joad” just doesn’t do it for me. It’s too quiet, too lacking in memorable melodies, filled with too many songs that sound the same and too few tracks that make me want to listen to them again.
No, “Devils & Dust” may return to some similar territory, but it is certainly more than simply “an acoustic album.” Instead, it offers a nice mix of what solo Springsteen has sounded like for nearly two decades. Though not as full of bravado or muscle as his work with the E Street Band, “Devils & Dust” is compelling, catchy, and, in parts, downright phenomenal.
Maybe it’s my personal curse, but I always seem to connect first with uptempo numbers on a new record, no matter the artist. Thankfully, Springsteen delivers a healthy amount on “Devils & Dust.”
The best is “Long Time Comin’,” which could be seen as a distant cousin to 1992’s “Better Days.” Backed by a driving drumbeat, wistful violin and toned-down electric guitar, this may already be one of my favorite Springsteen songs of all time. Not because it necessarily covers new ground musically, but because it is truly uplifting, telling the story of a man who for too long allowed his life to be eclipsed by the shadow of a deadbeat father. Now, awaiting the birth of his third child, the protagonist is making a commitment to change his life and stop taking out the sins of his father on those he loves. In an apology to his wife and children, the man is “going to get birth naked and bury my old soul/And dance on its grave,” promising “I ain’t gonna fuck it up this time” (Springsteen’s first use of the f-word on an album).
Like “Long Time Comin’,” this album is made up entirely of stories, as Springsteen embodies characters as varied as a young black man (“Black Cowboys”) to an illegal immigrant (“Matamorous Banks”) to a desperate boxer (“The Hitter”), to name a few. Perhaps the character that engenders the most controversy, however, is from the title track, where Springsteen sings from the perspective of an American soldier in Iraq struggling to come to grips with the horrors of war. Now, Springsteen and I are on complete opposite sides of the political fence, but “Devils & Dust” as a whole is not as overtly partisan as I thought it would be, and the title cut explores themes I’ve struggled to reconcile myself, as I wonder how our soldiers fighting in the Middle East can possibly return to a normal life when they come home. (Too bad the music itself is a rather tepid retread of “Blood Brothers” from 1994’s “Greatest Hits” set, making this opening track absolutely skippable.)
And let’s remember, especially you Red-staters out there still on Boss Blackout after the somewhat ridiculous Vote for Change Tour: This isn’t new territory for Springsteen, (hello, “Born in the U.S.A.”). But there is plenty to love about his music, even if I don’t agree with his choice for president in 2004. Is George W. Bush worth missing out on “Devils & Dust”? Am I suddenly going to stop loving “Badlands,” “Atlantic City” or “One Step Up”? Absolutely not. You’re never going to agree with everything another person believes. If you do, that’s a relationship not worth having.
So politics aside, where does that leave us regarding “Devils & Dust”? It’s a mixed bag, in the end, a hair’s breadth away from being a truly great album, but one I like much more than I thought I would. There’s a good deal of variety here, including two great toe-tappers, “Maria’s Bed” and “All I’m Thinkin’ About,” in which Springsteen dons a charming, odd-but-it-works falsetto. There are also some near misses, such as “Reno,” which is musically and thematically engaging but suffers in execution. In this story of another desperate man seeking (and failing to find) satisfaction in the embrace of a prostitute, the lyrics are so graphic they are almost unlistenable; Springsteen himself seems embarrassed to be singing some of the lines, skating past the most … vivid descriptions of one night in a rent-by-the-hour hotel room.
There are some who will never be satisfied unless The Boss is backed by the E Streeters, belting out clones of “Rosalita” or “Born to Run.” Credit Springsteen for having the artistic integrity to realize treading on past successes means a complete lack of relevance in the here and now. There are songs he wants to write that just don’t fit on an album such as “The Rising,” but that doesn’t mean they can’t be great. “Devils & Dust” takes a few listens to fully sink in, if nothing else than to get used to Springsteen without his beloved mates. But it is also good enough to hold its own among one of the greatest catalogs in rock and roll.