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Paying the Cost to Be The Boss
Bruce Springsteen: Devils & Dust
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
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
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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