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Unplugged Life

Bruce Springsteen Ages Into The Intimate Singer/Songwriter Album With Devils and Dust

HUMAN TOUCH: After mastering the rockin' Bruce album, Bruce Springsteen is now honing the acoustic Bruce album.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 6/29/2005

Bruce Springsteen stood alone on the stage of the Tower Theatre just outside Philadelphia May 17, the sleeves of his black-and-white plaid shirt rolled up past his elbows. Four weeks into his solo tour in support of his new Devils and Dust, he slapped his acoustic guitar with his open palm, creating a slow, deliberate drumbeat that alternated with his ringing guitar chords. It took a minute to figure out what he was playing, but gradually it became clear that this was a stripped-naked shadow of his rock ’n’ roll anthem “The Promised Land.”

Back in 1978, when he had bellowed the lines “I ain’t a boy/ No, I’m a man,” it was a young man’s demand for dignity. When he murmured the same lines tonight, it was an older man acknowledging that he no longer had his best years before him. He was a 55-year-old artist whose best work was probably past. Rather than pretend otherwise, he has come to terms with the fact that the manic stage adrenaline doesn’t come as readily as it once did and neither do the songs. In the process, he pulled off the most difficult trick in rock ’n’ roll: aging gracefully.

Devils and Dust is the best album of new material Springsteen has released since 1987’s Tunnel of Love. It’s also his third album of mostly acoustic, mostly solo songs in the country-folk vein of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Hank Williams, not as consistently as 1982’s Nebraska but better than 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad. Devils is better produced and more musical than either; he’s finally figured out how to make this kind of album.

And he has carried that knowledge over to the stage. At the Tower, he began “Black Cowboys,” one of the four great story-songs that form Devils’ core, with a low-key, conversational vocal and a simple acoustic-guitar figure. Inspired by Jonathan Kozol’s book Amazing Grace, about the Mott Haven neighborhood in Harlem, Springsteen sang of a mother who keeps her young boy indoors so he won’t get caught up in the gun battles on the streets.

Just when the song grew repetitive and the narrative turned bleak, with the mother moving a local drug dealer into her bedroom, an organ sample was triggered onstage and subtly swelled the harmonies beneath Springsteen’s voice and guitar. And when Springsteen sang of the boy stealing the dealer’s money and taking a train out to Oklahoma where he hopes to live the cowboy life, he triggered a string sample, giving this unlikely quest a lift of optimism—even if he wouldn’t find the long-gone cowboys, he was likely to find something else.

Both the album and the live show are filled with these subtle sonic colorings. They never intrude on the foreground; they never spoil the illusion that Springsteen is sitting in a chair across from you, a guitar on his right thigh. But these overdubs and samples flesh out the background, keeping the music nearly as interesting as the lyrics.

Devils contains a quartet of persuasive love songs—“All the Way Home” (originally recorded by Southside Johnny in 1991), “Maria’s Bed,” “Long Time Comin,’” and “All I’m Thinkin’ About”—which are all driven by infectious guitar hooks. But the album also contains a quartet of disappointing songs—“Silver Palomino,” “Leah,” “Jesus Was an Only Son,” and the title track (written on the eve of the Iraq War)—that suffer from the same spiritual vagueness that afflicted his previous studio album, The Rising.

It’s as if Springsteen has read so many reviews about what his songs mean that he decided to cut out the middleman and tell us himself. So instead of showing us how a U.S. soldier might patrol the dusty streets of Iraq, faced with the temptation to exact the devil’s revenge on helpless civilians, he forgoes the story and simply delivers the sermon’s moral. And two of the songs about mothers and sons—“Silver Palomino” and “Jesus Was an Only Son”—are wrapped in a sentimentality so dreamy that it’s hard to discern the reasons why.

The most interesting of Springsteen’s new gambits is his unprecedented willingness to describe sex and violence in graphic detail, as if he realized that he’s now too old to be a pop star again so he might as well be blunt. On “Reno,” a prostitute negotiates a price with the singer and arouses him with her hands and mouth before climbing on top. Those details form the crucial backdrop to the song’s true subject—that sex with strangers is always a disappointing substitute for sex with the one you really love. It’s a tough song but one of Springsteen’s best, especially onstage, where he followed the final line, “It wasn’t the best I ever had, not even close,” with a wordless, despairing, falsetto cry.

Even better is “Matamoros Banks,” a sequel to The Ghost of Tom Joad’s “Across the Border,” he explained at the Tower. Over a pretty Tex-Mex guitar arpeggio, he describes a nameless peasant who tries to cross the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Mexico, to Brownsville, Texas, but gets caught in the currents and drowns. The turtles have eaten away his eyelids, so his eyes are open to the stars, an image that’s as seductive as the dead man’s hopes and as horrible as his fate.

Springsteen then shifts from the third person to the first, taking up the dead man’s voice, remembering the long walk across the desert and asking his wife to “meet me on the Matamoros Banks.” But what will she find there but a decaying corpse? No song this year is likely to offer a tale as heartfelt or as grim.

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