While they inevitably give
the Boss the requisite props for his writerly pretensions, even Bruce
Springsteen loyalists view the acoustic albums that he uses to intersperse
his full-band efforts as something to endure rather than enjoy.
Discs such as "Nebraska"
(1982) and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (1995) are like foul-tasting cough
medicine: They're supposed to be good for you, so you grit your teeth,
swallow hard despite the bitterness and wonder if a stiff shot of booze
wouldn't do you a lot more good in the end.
But "Devils & Dust,"
which arrives in stores today, actually comes as a welcome relief after the
chest-thumping bombast of "The Rising," Springsteen's 2002 reunion with the
E Street Band and his disappointingly hollow musing on Sept. 11. And for a
Springsteen acoustic record, it's a surprisingly tasty and tuneful affair --
more Pernod than NyQuil.
"DEVILS & DUST"
To be sure, the subject matter of the Boss'
19th album is as wannabe-Hemingwayesque as ever. If it feels as if we've
thundered down these roads a dozen times before, it's because we have.
In the title track, Springsteen climbs inside
the head of a conflicted soldier on a desert battlefield. In "Matamoros
Banks," he's an illegal immigrant who drowns as he tries to swim toward his
lover and the Promised Land. And in "Reno," a surprisingly explicit tune
that earns the album a parental warning sticker, he's a john visiting a
prostitute who reminds him of the True Love that escaped him.
"Black Cowboys" gives us African Americans
struggling to escape the ghetto; "The Hitter" gives us a hard-scrapping
boxer, and so on. But it all sounds much more interesting synopsized here
than it does sketched out in Springsteen's lyrics.
"Write about what you know" is the first rule
teachers give all aspiring pretentious writers. The problem with Bruce
climbing inside the heads of these characters is that he has long since lost
any connection to their blue-collar roots, if he ever had them.
If Bruce wrote about what he knows these
days, the labor disputes he'd chronicle would be about the difficulties of
keeping good gardeners and nannies and the demands for bonuses that those
pesky E Streeters make at the end of his top-grossing tours, and the
personal conflicts would be along the lines of him wondering if it was worth
it to alienate so many fans and invoke the scrutiny of the IRS by backing
that loser John Kerry.
But while several songs give us the bare
bones Boss croaking like a guy from Jersey imitating a guy from Oklahoma
over a sad and naked acoustic guitar -- the soundscapes of the title track,
"Silver Palomino" and "The Hitter" are as desolate and joyless as Nebraska,
the state and the album -- much of "Devils & Dust" is pleasantly inviting.
Producer Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam,
Soundgarden, the Black Crowes) fleshes things out with relatively lush,
Fairport Convention-style folk-rock arrangements featuring just the right
touches of violin, backing vocals, an understated rhythm section, slide
guitar, tambourine, trumpet and keyboards. As a result, tunes such as "All
the Way Home," "Long Time Comin'," "Leah" and "Jesus Was an Only Son" are
downright fun and hummable -- a rarity indeed for a Springsteen acoustic
Couple that with the fact that Bruce gives
fans extra bang for their buck by releasing the album in the new DualDisc
format -- with the CD on one side and a DVD featuring video of the Boss
performing five of these tunes on the other -- and I'll take "Devils & Dust"
over "The Rising" or a mouthful of cough medicine any day.
Bruce Springsteen performs a sold-out show at
the Rosemont Theatre on May 11.