'Devil' in the details of Springsteen's solo disc


April 26, 2005


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.





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 disc.

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.