Life can cast an evil hex sometimes. Whether it’s that girl who doesn’t know
your name or a musician who seems to inhabit an altogether different planet,
hopeless admiration can sting just the same. Take the music business these days.
Artists tender their unsolicited views on world events and charge people to hear
it. Record companies wage war against their very revenue stream. Fabled legends
like Paul McCartney deem it fair to collect $200 per seat to witness
performances that haven’t evolved in nearly two generations. It’s enough to make
you want to stage a revolution!
And then, Bruce Springsteen delivers a new record that has even a casual user
contemplating what life was ever like before such great rock n’ roll panacea.
Like the hatching of barnyard animals in “Charlotte’s Web,” there is something
miraculous about spring. Such is the exhilarating air that envelops Devils &
Dust. Leaving the E. Street Band on the bench for the first time in a
decade, the Boss hunkers down with guitar and pen, but contrary to many a
report, the outcome is nothing like 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad. This
work is neither solemn nor dark. Nor is it sparse, since full instrumental
accompaniment supports new standards like “Maria’s Bed” and “Long Time Comin’”
“There’s me and you, Rosie, cracklin’ like crossed wires and I hear you breathin’
in your sleep,” plays as urgent and timeless as its cohort, “Rosalita (Come Out
Tonight).” When he murmurs the cyclical chorus into “All I’m Thinkin’ About,”
the calendar seems irrelevant and time, Greetings from Asbury Park to
present, stands perfectly still.
The best Springsteen solo records (see Tunnel of Love and Human Touch)
have been marked by an inability to decipher a complete absence of the E. Street
Band. Here “Leah” is the finest track, because you can sense Clarence Clemons
slapping that tambourine and Steve Van Zandt chiming in with those angelic
backing choruses. Hell, a slaphappy harmonica romp like “All the Way Home” could
well have been the eighth single from Born in the USA. Moreover, nobody
can carve a more striking ballad, so even quieter steps like “Black Cowboys” and
the ominous title track feel like instant classics.
Springsteen’s decision to relinquish his political agenda is possibly the most
attractive element of this record. For the most part, he leaves the anti-Dubya
guns in their holster and opts for subjects of love and desire as his central
themes. After all, what is more universal? A friend in Nebraska (the state not
the album) declared recently that Springsteen speaks to him throughout different
stages in his life, from high school to fatherhood, yet all points are relevant
and seem frighteningly personal. As change is inevitable, from the heartland to
the Vatican, certain components of the American backdrop remain. When Bruce
Springsteen validates what we hope to already know about the good in our lives,
every day feels like the first day of spring, full of hope and aspiration. And
I’ll still pay $14 for that sermon.