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Paying the Cost to Be The Boss

 

Bruce Springsteen: Devils & Dust

Columbia, 2005

Rating: 3.4

 

Posted: May 6, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Being Bruce Springsteen, the icon, sure gets in the way of being Bruce Springsteen, the artist. While grand, larger-than-life gestures can be very effective (just ask U2), art sometimes requires subtlety, which means more than just slowing down the tempo and maybe switching to an acoustic guitar. Springsteen's new album, Devils & Dust, mostly aims for a more scaled-down palette than found on his full-on rock records, which has led to some inevitable comparisons to Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, two of his more austere and atmospheric solo efforts. But the musical backdrop proves at odds with his lyrical approach and delivery, which carry the broad, swing-for-the-fences stamp of his arena-rock phases.

Of course, Springsteen has rarely been subtle, but in its attempts to echo the stark narratives of Nebraska or the dustbowl troubadour ambitions of Joad, Dust is less subtle than usual -- and less convincing. Dust sounds like nothing so much as an arena-rocker affecting a rootsy, down-to-earth persona. If that suggests a certain cynicism on Springsteen's part, well, welcome to the realities of the music industry. But Dust isn't so much inauthentic as it is out of sync with its implicit aim to trace the somber footsteps of those earlier works. It's as if, having played the crowd-pleasing rock card, Springsteen feels the need to validate himself as a "serious" artist, but has mistaken a certain affected intimacy of approach for thoughtfulness and dramatic substance.

In any event, Devils & Dust never sticks to one dominant musical model. "All the Way Home" and "Long Time Comin'" are breezy, kinda-sorta-rockers more suitable to the mainstream pop-rock of Human Touch, and a couple of the slower numbers here -- most notably the title track, sung from the perspective of a soul-searching American soldier overseas -- feature gradually building arrangements and a slightly punchy, radio-friendly aura, courtesy of famed rock producer Brendan O'Brien. Even the numbers that most approximate the stripped-bare acoustics and down-at-heels character sketches of Nebraska -- the tugging "Reno" (about a forlorn man's fruitless visit with a prostitute), "The Hitter" or "Black Cowboys" -- are sonically fuller than the songs on that earlier watershed.

None of which is to suggest that Devils & Dust is a bad record; it's often tuneful and not without its affecting moments. But despite a strong handful of melodic, self-assured and even poignant songs -- the title track, "Reno," "Long Time Comin'" -- as a whole, the album feels a bit like a pose. Springsteen can't help it if he's a wealthy rock star, and certainly the listener brings some of that persona along to Dust. But the listener is aided by The Boss himself, who seems to be hedging his bets, slipping in hints of his more arena-friendly, full-bodied sound with swelling arrangements, even as he bites off self-serious lines like "I've got my finger on the trigger / And tonight faith just ain't enough" (from "Devils & Dust"), the kind designed to easily push the buttons of large stadiums full of fans eager to sing along to platitudes and big-rock imagery.

Having readily played into his own iconography over the past few years -- with the E-Street Band reunion, the subsequent Rising album and tour and last fall's Vote For Change Tour -- Springsteen has again established himself as "The Boss" of prime Born in the U.S.A. vintage. Devils & Dust suggests that he seems to be having a difficult time shaking free of that persona -- even when he wants to. As a result, Dust is that odd record that, however likeable on the surface, never quite sounds completely at home in its own skin.

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 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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