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Devils and Dust :- Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records 93900

The artwork for Bruce Springsteen's third proper solo effort, Devils and Dust, reveals much of what to expect on its dozen tracks. It’s meant to ward off the "Born in the U.S.A" bandwagon crowd whose only touchstone to the artist is misinterpreting that song as a patriotic anthem and consequently misunderstanding any other action he’s made since that time (ie. stumping for regime change in last year’s presidential election). For those who’ve stuck around, Devils and Dust represents the next volume in Bruce Springsteen the Folk Artist. Thematically, much of it echoes the loss of the American Dream stories found on his last solo release, 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad. Not surprisingly, it was written during the tour to promote that album.

Offering a nod to the Old West, the sepia-toned images in the CD booklet have the weathered look of early snapshots that have been carried in a parka while riding across the prairie. The photos of wide-open spaces hint at oncoming storms rather than a natural gift bestowed on us Earthlings from the Heavens. He visits this locale as a real place in the present ("Matamoros Banks") and as a symbol of freedom ("Black Cowboys" and "Silver Palomino").

On the front cover is a close up of Springsteen looking like he's in a serious singer/songwriter mode. His demeanor barely hides the emotional turmoil from within, as agitation, frustration, doubt and depression fight for control of his mental machinery. The pose comes to musical life with the album's mix of somber stories, sparse accompaniment and downtrodden characters making their way through bad luck existences. The title track recounts a soldier's dilemma; he is surviving the war but sense his soul dying because of it. On "Reno" a prostitute can't even help a client to take his mind off the world outside his hotel window. The protagonist in "All the Way Home" could be the same guy in the car outside Wendy's house written about three decades earlier on "Thunder Road." Sounding like he may not have made it from the town's losers mentioned in that song, he's back to his old ways, trying to sweet talk a woman to join him. This time, he can't promise a new life, only a few blocks of his time.

Moments of light and life do drift through these tunes. "All the Way Home," "Long Time Comin'" and "Maria's Bed" elicit sparks through their band arrangements. And the closest steps towards a light at the end of life's dark tunnel are on display by the Son regretfully making good on a Promise to His Father ("Jesus Was An Only Son"), the young man stealing a drug dealer's money to make his way across country ("Black Cowboys"), a man coming to terms, finally, with fatherhood ("Long Time Comin'") and the thoughts of a lover who makes all the hardships worth it ("Maria's Bed").

Unlike the demos that became Nebraska and the suffocating and consistently sparse sameness found on Joad, the production work of Brendan O’Brien fleshes out the music on Devils and Dust. The tunes keep to their haunting core yet there’s enough happening within their framework to make them enjoyable as a listening experience only. Of course, the intimacy of lyrical dissection is what’s required and what, in the end, satisfies. Since these tunes were written, nothing much has changed for these lost souls among us, and Devils and Dust presents a soundtrack for our neighbors, co-workers, friends, relatives and strangers standing next to us in the grocery store checkout line.

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