Bruce Springsteen’s new album, ‘Devils & Dust’ — his first for three years — is his darkest and most intimate to date and shows America’s greatest rock performer moving into an ever deeper artistic maturity.
The highway is alive tonight,” sang Bruce Springsteen in his title song of his 1995 album, ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’, “but nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes.” In a rock’n’roll life punctuated by pivotal moments, this was a small but significant one, though its self-questioning undertow went unremarked by reviewers at the time. Though the song and, indeed the whole album, is ostensibly about the plight of America’s poor and disenfranchised, in that single line, Springsteen seemed also to be singing to himself. Or, more accurately, he seemed to be questioning the idealism of his younger self. This, after all, was a man who had hymned the American highway as a route to freedom and deliverance more than any other rock performer since Chuck Berry. On albums such as ‘The Wild’, ‘The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle’ and ‘Born to Run’, the young Springsteen had returned time and time again to the seemingly inexhaustible subject of cars and girls.
Now, he seemed to be saying, those kind of songs no longer sufficed. In their place were songs about poverty and crime, migration and exile, hopelessness and broken dreams, not altogether new topics for Springsteen, but couched now in a language and imagery that seemed a world away from all those youthful, unabashedly romantic odes to undimmed optimism. As far back as 1978’s ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, critics had detected a deep seam of pessimism in Springsteen’s work. ‘Devils & Dust’, then, is another album full of bruised hope and broken dreams. In shifting to a more intimate, introspective form of songwriting, Springsteen shed a sizable proportion of his once-huge mainstream audience. This was a man, after all, who had made his name as one of the most barnstorming rock performers of recent times, whose early-to-mid period songs defined the notion of the rock epic. And, like Dylan before him, Springsteen has journeyed back into the very roots of American music, into the folk ballad form, perhaps because it is the only form stark and intricate enough to hold the songs he now wants to - or, more pertinently, feels he must - sing.
As ‘The Rising’ showed, though, Springsteen can still do “Big and Meaningful” like no one else except maybe U2, but middle age has, thankfully, tempered his tendency to overstate and over-emote. An album of songs that considered America in the wake of 11 September, ‘The Rising’ reminded the world that Springsteen was one of the few popular artists capable of tackling such big and emotive subject matter, even if it sounds, in retrospect, overambitious and uneven. What we are hearing between the lines of ‘Devils & Dust’ is Springsteen’s ongoing attempt to relocate him artistically and to grow old gracefully. Soon after the release of ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’, an album with a definably Spanish-American feel and subject matter, Springsteen vacated the $14-million dollar mansion in Beverly Hills that he had moved into after his marriage to Julianne Phillips, a model-turned-actress. With his second wife, E Street band member Patti Scialfa and their three children, he settled once again in New Jersey. At least three songs in his album deal with men seeking either their mother’s love or their mother’s forgiveness. Springsteen, who has returned again and again to the subject of, to borrow one of his song titles, “The Ties That Bind” - the ties of family and community - seems to be focusing now on the mother-son dynamic just as he once grappled with his own often thorny relationship with his father.
Amid all these songs of lost or fleeting love, though, Springsteen places “Jesus Was an Only Son”, the closest he has yet come to writing a song that is redemptive in the strictly religious sense of the word. Like the closing “Matamoras Banks”, a death ballad again employing graphic detail, Springsteen seems to be placing his faith in divine resurrection rather than any earthly reward. “And the things of earth they make their claim,” runs a memorable couplet,
“that the things of heaven may do the same.” There is a sense here that Springsteen, like Dylan before him, may be diving deep into the Good Book for inspiration as the years pile up and mortality beckons. While ‘Devils & Dust’ may disappoint Springsteen’s mainstream audience, he remains a songwriter who is brave enough to follow his instincts, whose stripped-down songs of experience, however raw and bleak, are even more honestly hopeful than his youthful songs of innocence and escape. Long may he ruminate.
When Bruce Springsteen finally broke through to national recognition in the fall of 1975 after a decade of trying, critics hailed him as the saviour of rock & roll, the single artist who brought together all the exuberance of ‘50s rock and the thoughtfulness of ‘60s rock, molded into a ‘70s style. He rocked as hard as Jerry Lee Lewis; his lyrics were as complicated as Bob Dylan’s, and his concerts were near-religious celebrations of all that was best in music. One critic became so enamoured that he quit reviewing to become Springsteen’s manager. He is Jon Landau.