Album Reviews: Devils and Dust by Bruce SpringsteenEvery decade or so, Bruce Springsteen releases a somber album of narrative songs, character sketches and folk tunes -- records that play not like rock & roll, but rather as a collection of short stories. Nebraska, released in the fall of 1982 during the rise of Reagan's America, was the first of these, with the brooding The Ghost of Tom Joad following in 1995, in the thick of the Clinton administration but before the heady boom days of the late '90s.
At the midpoint of George W. Bush's administration, Springsteen releases Devils & Dust, another collection of story songs that would seem on the surface to be a companion to Nebraska and Ghost, but in actuality it's quite a different record than either. While the characters that roam through Devils & Dust are similarly heartbroken, desperate and down-trodden, they're far removed from the criminals and renegades of Nebraska, and the album doesn't have the political immediacy of Ghost's latter-day Woody Guthrie-styled tales -- themes that tied together those two albums. Here, the songs and stories are loosely connected. Several are set in the West, some are despairing, some have signs of hope, a couple are even sweet and light. Springsteen's writing is similarly varied, occasionally hearkening back to the spare, dusty prose of Nebraska but often it's densely composed, assured and evocative, written as if they were meant to be read aloud, not sung.
But the key to Devils & Dust, and why it's his strongest record in a long time, is that the music is as vivid and varied as words. Unlike the meditative, monochromatic The Ghost of Tom Joad, this has different shades of color, so somber epics like "The Hitter" or the sad, lonely "Reno" are balanced by the lighter "Long Time Comin'," "Maria's Bed" and "All I'm Thinkin' About," while the moodier "Black Cowboys" and "Devils & Dust" are enhanced by subtly cinematic productions. It results in a record that's far removed in feel from the stark, haunting Nebraska, but on a song for song level, it's nearly as strong, since its stories linger in the imagination as long as the ones from that '82 masterpiece (and they stick around longer than those from Ghost, as well). Devils & Dust is also concise and precisely constructed, two things the otherwise excellent 2002 comeback The Rising was not, and that sharp focus helps make this the leanest, artiest and simply best record Springsteen has made in many years. - Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide
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