CK Retro Review: Devils & Dust by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: May 12, 2014
When some worthy songs started to pile up in the vaults back in 2005, Springsteen decided to do some housecleaning and give them a proper release. After a few new tracks were added, Devils & Dust was born, an intriguing collection of story songs and confessionals that brim with humanity and insight, if not always a lot of excitement. Those looking for a coherent album-length statement should look elsewhere, but cherry-pickers are bound to find something they’ll like a lot in this diverse group. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “Silver Palomino”- The lyrics are actually quite pretty, even touching. I just wish they were delivered somewhat differently; Springsteen kind of growls them out, robbing the story of much of its tenderness.
11. “All The Way Home”- Written originally for Southside Johnny, Springsteen took this song back and rearranged it, though probably not for the better. Outside of some nice harmonica work from Bruce, the track is plodding and tuneless, while the lyrics are just a lesser rehash of the same themes found on “Tougher Than The Rest.”
10. “Maria’s Bed”- Nothing new here either in terms of subject matter: A hard-living dude finds passion and redemption in the arms of an alluring woman. Soosie Tyrell’s violin gives some extra flavor to an interesting shape-shifting arrangement that makes this one a nice diversion.
9. “All I’m Thinkin’ About”- Well, if it isn’t Smokey Springsteen. That falsetto alone makes this one worthwhile. I honestly don’t even pay too much attention to the lyrics, because that unorthodox vocal garners all my attention. Who knew Bruce had it in him?
8. “Long Time Comin”- Springsteen often gets incorrectly labeled as one of the progenitors of the loose sub-genre of music known as “heartland” rock. I’m not sure he ever fit that grouping well, but this song, with Bruce’s snarled vocals and sing-along chorus located amidst churning guitars, certainly does. And that’s fine, especially when Springsteen spices it up with telling details like when the narrator describes his estranged father as ” just somebody, somebody I’d see around.”
7. “Black Cowboys”- This one sounds like it easily would have fit in on The Ghost Of Tom Joad, although it’s more character-driven than issue-driven. Some of the descriptions of the neighborhood Rainey Williams inhabits really drive home the long odds he faces, such as when Springsteen sings, “he ran past melted candles and flower wreaths” as part of his everyday play. Bruce sings the whole thing dispassionately, which is also wise, lest he tip the story into melodrama. The melody is a bit of a flat-line, which was probably unavoidable with such detailed lyrics, but the song as a whole grows on you with repeated listens.
6. “Reno”- Hey now! By far the most graphic song Springsteen has ever recorded, this tale, on its surface, is about a rendezvous with a prostitute. Dig deeper and you’ll find a man trying to chase away the ghost of the true love that he squandered. The closing punchline (“It wasn’t the best I ever had/Not even close”) lets us know that his heart stayed behind with this former flame even if other parts of him have clearly moved on.
5. “Matamoras Banks”- I’m not sure the technique of telling the story in reverse, from the immigrant’s death back to when he tries to cross the border, is anything more than distracting. Yet that small quibble is overcome by the potency of the imagery and the unfussy beauty of the refrain, which will break you heart a little every time Bruce returns to it.
4. “Leah”- If there is a complaint that I have with a lot of Devils & Dust, it’s that at times Springsteen’s lyrics are almost too intricate and detailed, with descriptions that put too fine a point on everything. “Leah” skirts those problems for the most part, as Bruce uses clean, direct language to express this narrator’s hopes and desires. The melody is also a bit more elastic than some of the other tracks, while Mark Pender’s trumpet part is just the right embellishing touch. The whole thing just seems effortless and relaxed, which is ultimately what recommends it over some of the more ambitious songs here.
3. “Jesus Was An Only Son”- We aren’t conditioned to think of Jesus Christ as a living, breathing person who was someone’s son and had the same kind of fears and doubts as we all do. Springsteen’s song, which benefits from a clean, tender arrangement (with Bruce on every instrument) that spotlights the pretty melody, takes that somewhat novel approach and manages to reveal the human within the divine and vice-versa. Well-crafted and subtly stirring.
2. “The Hitter”- Again, there’s not much of a melody, but that’s more forgivable here considering the standout quality of the lyrics. Those moaning backing vocals also add the right touch of emotion to the deadpan of the narrative. Throughout his career, Springsteen has embodied characters who would rather endanger themselves to feel alive rather than quietly die a little every day; this guy may be the result of that ethos carried too far. But the scenes with his mother, icy and unsentimental, make it clear where these self-destructive tendencies originate. The closing shipyard brawl is a shiver-inducing ending to an expertly-rendered character sketch.
1. “Devils & Dust”- When Springsteen attempted to introduce hip-hop inspired beats on “The Fuse”, it sounded tentative if intriguing. He dives in much deeper on this inventive and moving recording, mixing his folky melody with those modern sensibilities seamlessly. The vibrancy of the music is contrasted with the hard questions asked by the lonely soldier. We always talk about those who are killed in wars, but what about the after-effects on those who do the killing? The key line here is “But I don’t know who to trust”; it’s Springsteen’s way of questioning the impetus for any war, let alone the foggy motivations for the war in Iraq which serves as the backdrop here. Proof that protest music is always at its best when human stories are at the forefront.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, but you can pre-order it now at all major online booksellers.)