devils & dust, 30 days out

So, one month after its release, I finally make myself sit down to write about this record. This all should have happened much sooner, but I just found myself so perplexed that I kept postponing the task for no other reason than I kept feeling like I was missing something. I wish I could say that it was because this record was so complex and challenging that I didn’t know what to make of it, that it took time to truly absorb it. If anything, the record confused me, and not in a good way.

Up until this missive was finished, I had deliberately avoided reading what anybody wrote about the record, not Amy, not SFJ, not even Pareles in the Times (who I won’t link because it will already cost you money to read it, but he did think it was the second coming), not even my editor at Backstreets. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want someone to tell me what I thought about the album as I didn’t want my own sinking feelings about the record affirmed, or conversely, I didn’t want to have someone tell me that this record was amazing (#1 in the US and the UK? That must’ve cost Sony a pretty penny) and have me wonder if perhaps I just don’t get Bruce any more, maybe I am not really part of his core audience so no wonder the record doesn’t speak to me.

Or maybe, just maybe, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Which is where it usually lurks.

Devils & Dust is not a bad record. It’s just not a great record, and Bruce Springsteen, Mr. Control Freak Extraordinaire, only releases Great Records. If he released a record every year and a half I could accept it in the same kind of context as, say, a Polaroid snapshot, and let it be just that, but he doesn’t work that way, and the fact that this came out as quickly as it did is somewhat mindboggling. But then you have to add to the mix the fact that I know probably too much, I know how old some of these songs are, and then I start to worry that maybe the reason that “Long Time Coming,” “All The Way Home” and “The Hitter” show up on here is not that they fit thematically (“Long Time Coming” does, and yes, you can stretch it and say “The Hitter” does as well [and, only because of the first two lines, only the device he uses to tell the narrative makes it fit thematically] , but it is a stretch), but that he didn’t have anything better so he dusted off songs out of the closet. This is of course a time-honored tradition and would be fine if (again, “Long Time Coming” excepted I think – I think) they were such memorable gems that it was only with great reluctance they were warehoused.

And then the boyfriend will remind me of the genesis of The Rising, and how Bruce didn’t have much, and that it was only when Brendan O’Brien pushed him to sit down and write that we got a whole album. I do find it funny how many people hated The Rising but seem to love Devils & Dust; The Rising was a great record with some exceptional songs. Devils & Dust is, at best, a good record with some shining moments. I hated The Rising when I first heard it, but then ended up with four copies (work, car, home, extra); even now, I’m not tired of the songs. I can’t say that Devils & Dust has similarly inspired me, and trust me, it’s not that I don’t want to like it. I desperately want a great, relevant, inspiring Springsteen record to have on repeat in the iPod for the next year. Instead, when I want relevant and inspiring, I’m turning to the new Sleater-Kinney record instead–which is probably not a fair comparison, but then again, why the hell not?

I made the point in my Storytellers review that if you have to explain a song in order for the audience to understand it, then something is wrong with the song, because the song should be enough. Sasha makes the same point about “Silver Palomino,” and I’ll make the same point again, here, about “Matamoros Banks” (and also “Reno,” but “Reno” gets its own paragraph, don’t you worry, so just hang on). I like that Bruce sees “Matamoros Banks” as the sequel (or rather, companion piece, I think) to “Across The Border” but he shouldn’t have to draw the line for me, and the songwriting — the *storytelling* — should be strong enough that you don’t have to explain to me that you are switching perspectives (another problem with “Reno,” once again, wait). And the fact that he feels the need to explain things, both in concert and in the liner notes, makes the songs feel half-baked, not ready for prime time. Springsteen is, goddammit, a strong enough storyteller in 150 words — hell, in one fucking line — that he doesn’t need to tell us what the song means. And while the man is reknown for the stories he would tell in concert, they were always apart from the song, a compliment, a tangent, sparking off the theme of the song, not long treatises on what the song was about.

“Reno”. I get very, very concerned when anyone tries to tell an artist when they have gone too far, or what they are and aren’t “allowed” to do. You don’t like “Reno”? Skip it. Make your own mix (as some pretentious blowhard who wrote to Backstreets this month did). But musicians are not jukeboxes and you don’t have to agree or like everything that they do, and you get to vote by not buying their records or not going to their shows. Period. My argument on “Reno” is that Bruce wanted to very drastically contrast two periods in the character’s life, how he can descend from glory into despondency, and he wanted the difference between the two worlds to be utterly different. My problem isn’t the language or the technique, my problem is that it just isn’t done very well, and not because it uses language some people find objectionable (I swear to god if I ever hear any of you swearing at a baseball game I will report you to the hypocrite police, if there was such a thing, and there should be). That’s all. The transitions aren’t sharp enough and the middle passage isn’t clear enough to me (without his explanation, anyway) and that, to me, is what makes “Reno” fail. Not the questionable language.

(Sidebar: The Starbucks thing was asinine, not because they banned him, and not because Bruce’s management wanted to sell the record there — it’s not the worst marketing idea in the world — but because Starbucks actually believes that the Starbucks brand has more meaning and value to people than Bruce Springsteen as a brand does. How completely idiotic.)

I like “Leah”. I like “Maria’s Bed.” I am not sure that both of them needed to be on the record, and I’d argue that there are songs on “Tracks” that got left off of other albums that are stronger than both of these numbers combined. “Long Time Coming” is beautiful and moving and hurrah that it emerged from the vaults and it fits beautifully with the theme, intentional or unintentional, of parenting and children, that shadows the album. “Black Cowboys” feels like a Jonathan Lethem short story (and is probably my favorite new song). I have made my peace with “Devils & Dust” as a song, and out of the new material (again, stress on new) on the record, it’s probably the best song, but I don’t know what that means. I also don’t know how much I’m colored by my exposure to all the interviews where he talks about the song, or if hearing it live (without the freaking Nashville Strings and other production elements that sanitize it too much to my liking) has changed me. I can’t tell at this point.

Now, having said all of this, I need to make the point that I think the live show supporting Devils & Dust is anything but predictable or boring and is in fact incredibly reactionary. It pissed Amy off — hell, it’s pissing off a lot of people, including big, long-time fans. For a solo acoustic tour to have this affect is utterly remarkable. I do have to wonder how long the surprises are going to continue; Boston felt somewhat formulaic after the string of surprises that have been rolled out this tour (and even “Real World” felt just the tiniest bit rote; I know I am spoiled, being one of the few thousand people on the planet who have heard it played live not once but twice, but still). I like the fact that he is approaching songs from different perspectives, even if they don’t last or I don’t like them — okay, so there’s nothing I don’t like (I am somewhat tired of this version of “The Promised Land” although it doesn’t count because it’s not the standard version, but it is the standard non-standard version, if that makes sense). I like that he is not rolling out “Thunder Road” and “Born To Run” and “I’m On Fire” gets played on a freaking banjo. I love the honky-tonk version of “Ramrod” so much I would like it to stay that way forever. And I am a rabid maniac for what’s been done to “Reason To Believe,” although I realize I am in the minority here (okay, I seem to be the only one who is enthralled by it, actually). My only lament is I wish Bruce could have brought the same spirit of experimentation and reinvention that is clearly present on this tour, to the recording of Devils & Dust. Everyone would probably still be pissed off — long time fans who want Bruce to stay the same forever, newer fans who missed it the first time so they don’t want him to ever change — but we’d have an album to remember.

Oh well. There’s always the next one. You know, the one he’s going to make with Social Distortion as his backing band. Or with the same kind of band that Dylan has, with a white-hot guitar player that will actually challenge the Guitar Slinger of Central New Jersey.

(Yeah, right. In my dreams.)

(Wait. “Real World,” solo piano, repeatedly. That did happen, right?)

(Maybe my dreams aren’t that crazy after all.)

My 4/22/05 Asbury Park Rehearsal Show review
My Storytellers review
Other writing on Bruce