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Devils and Dust is Bruce Springsteen's 13th studio album, it's a moody one. You can tell that from the picture on the front. His chin looks more chiselled than normal and his eyes are deep and buried, he's definitely troubled and miles away here.
I bought this CD last year some time and I was really excited when it arrived. I played it straight away and wasn't as excited after my first listening. This wasn't the Bruce I was used to. I didn't mind the acoustic aspect to the album, I love his acoustic stuff especially Nebraska but there was just something about all the wobbly, high notes that put my nerves on edge. I put the CD to one side and waited until my husband came home. Later in the evening I played it to him without saying anything and then asked him what he thought. He said that he thought it was a beautiful album and really liked the falsetto singing and 12 string arrangements on some of the songs. I didn't agree and put it back on the shelf with all his other albums. This is where it stayed for many months looking down on me, saying, 'Please play me, please play me.'
I'm hoping one day to write my own biography of the great Mr Springsteen so recently I've been having a splurge, buying old albums and sorting all my Bruce paraphernalia out. Looking for inspiration, I decided to play Devils and Dust again. This time the album grabbed my attention and I've played it so many times since, it has become an obsession. Every night for weeks the big, cosy headphones would sit on top of my cranium and I would play it not once but at least three times over. Each time I listened carefully and from the opening line, 'I got my finger on the trigger,' I was bedazzled as if by magic. I think it is the production on this album that makes me feel this way. It is such a closed in experience, it's like you and the music, that's all there is.
Devils and Dust is a singer/songwriter album in the same style as Nebraska although it isn't quite as stark and there is much more instrumentation on this one. There are similarities to The Ghost of Tom Joad and I do believe some of the songs were written around the time of the Tom Joad tour which started in 1995 and went on until 1997. The songs were performed but never released. Like Nebraska and Tom Joad the narratives set the acoustic stage where we learn very harsh lessons about life. Gone are the blue collar workers, long dusty roads and old Buicks, local bars, ordinary Joes and small American towns, all the parts of Springsteen's songs that make most fans warm and snug. This is a different world of Springsteen; it's harsh, dirty and at times destructive. Like Nebraska and Tom Joad this album wasn't received very well by his fans at first but over the years the songs have grown on them.
Devils and Dust is a strong album even though it doesn't have any particular theme and the songs are all over the place stylistically. This doesn't mean that Bruce doesn't address things that concern him, he certainly does and we get to know about his political preferences in the opening track. 'Devils and Dust' is a political song about the American involvement in the Gulf War. Bruce expresses his feelings but at the same time doesn't lose track of what is happening to the real guys who are caught in the ideological crossfire. It's a great opening song; his voice is very deep and rugged here. Lovely guitar strings and horns.
The narrative of Reno is quite startling, shocking in fact. We learn about the character's encounter with a prostitute, a graphic song in every way and one to make you blush. The finger pickin' guitar and the sombre ups and downs of his vocals make you listen real hard. The lines, 'My eyes drifted out of the window, down to the road below. I felt my stomach tighten,' make me shudder and feel sickly, and at the end these lines are delivered in such a cold, bitter way. 'She poured me another whisky, said, "Here's to the best you ever had. "We laughed and made a toast. It wasn't the best I ever had, not even close." Bruce's vocals on this track are slow, dark and deliberate. The tune is a fragile one and the threads of slide guitar are beautiful but it's still a freaky song that makes me feel uneasy.
From one extreme to another, we move on to two great love songs. I think I have always said that Bruce Springsteen writes beautiful love songs and when I hear them I feel as though he has written them and is singing these songs for me, only. 'Leah' and 'Long Time Comin' are two such songs.
'Long Time Comin' goes back to the old Springsteen style; a song entrenched in the reality of a long time relationship and a promise to learn from past mistakes. This could be about him personally or about his Dad. It cuts me up every time I hear this song. He doesn't want his kids to be messed up from other people's mistakes. He uses the F word in this song,something he had't done in previous songs. The way he delivers the word in the context of the song is quite shocking, not as an obscenity but as an exclamation of hope.
Note the vocal change on 'Maria's Bed' and on 'Silver Palomino', both fantastic songs and very catchy. If ever there was an ear worm and a song that you can't get rid of, it's 'Maria's Bed'. His voice is very distracting in both these songs as it has such a strange nasal quality. Out of all the tracks, Maria's Bed is my favourite, it's such a lovely love song with amazing images created by the lyrics.
I been up on sugar mountain, cross the sweet blue seas
I walked the valley of love and tears and mystery
I got run out'a luck and give myself up for dead
And I drank the cool clear waters from Maria's bed
I find it difficult to write about 'Silver Palomino', it's a song about a mother dying and how her young son has to come to terms with the loss. The lyrics are haunting and it is so sad. Very high vocals but sung beautifully and wonderful guitar and strings.
Looking back at all Bruce's songs I'll think you will see how the faith and family thread are always entwined. These two subjects are covered deeply in his work and I think they reach an apotheosis on the track, 'Jesus was an only son.' The images are so strong, they tell the story of the final hours of Christ but at the same time the song looks into the relationship between Jesus and his mother. The image of a mother praying for her child is very strong but it takes on a different tone when the child is Christ. I think this song works on the domestic level and also on the religious level. I am not religious in any way but this song takes my breath away. It's a real stunner.
'Hitter', is a sparse, folky tale about a boxer who was once great and has now fallen. He questions the futility of being paid large sums of money for killing men as a form of entertainment. Bruce's voice is craggy here and vivid. There is a feeling of exhaustion about the song. In lots of ways the guitar and strings remind me of Leonard Cohen.
Finally, we have 'Matamoros Banks', another desperate story of Mexican immigrants drowning as they try to cross the Matamoros River. It's a beautiful song and the subject matter obviously strikes a social nerve of the Boss. He's a very clever songwriter here because he tells the tale backwards. We see the body of an immigrant washed upon the shore after several days in the River Matamoros. The song finishes with the hopefulness of the same immigrant. This time he is looking across the water to the land of riches which is painfully close, if only he could reach it.
I've left a couple of songs out, not because I don't like them but I think I have written enough now. I think you can tell from my review that I am very taken with this album. It is one of my favourites and I play it a lot. The songwriting is impeccable and the instrumentation is different than on some of his albums but very enjoyable. It's good to hear Bruce playing bass, keyboards and drums. Soozie Tyrell and Patti join him on the album and Brendan O'Brien (one of the producers) plays tambora, sitar, hurdy-gurdy and electric sarangi. There is also a nice mixture of horns and Nashville strings.
The song booklet that goes with the CD is well presented in black and different shades of browns and sepia. All the lyrics are written in Bruce's spider like scrawl and the photos are from the 2005 period when he's looking pretty hunky and he thinks he is a cowboy.
It's a great album. I don't think you have to be a Bruce Springsteen fan to listen to this and enjoy it, although it would help. If you like Bruce's rockier stuff then this isn't for you. If you like country folk, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen then I think you will like this album. His voice goes a bit high and wobbly at times but then it does on a lot of his albums. Don't be put off by this. As for the lyrics they are outstanding if a little daunting and scary at times.
There is a DVD that comes with the CD and booklet. If you are unsure about the songs at first, like I was, then I suggest you watch the DVD. Bruce explains some of the lyrics and his reasons for writing them. It's very nicely filmed, he's in a beaten up room all alone with his guitar, and he looks very moody, dominant and menacing.
I think I paid just over £8 from Amazon last year. The best £8 I ever spent. I'm proud to have Devils and Dust in my collection.
Those expecting another typical rock 'n' roll album from Bruce Springsteen will be in for a shock, but certainly not a disappointment. This is The Boss stripped to the bone. To say this album is insightful is an understatement; in essence this is Springsteen in arguably his most vulnerable and open form.
It's not just the lyrics that are open and bare boned (this is almost always the case with Springsteen), it's the lack of any pretension or overly dramatic melodies and harmonies - this is an album with few instruments, but incredible results.
The majority of the songs on the album are basically The Boss, his guitar, and a little instrumental support. This works so well, allowing the listener to be taken by his voice and brought into the story he is telling. The power of his voice, and the sorrow, regret and passion he exudes resonate with you, remaining long after the album has ended.
Certain tracks on the album (Black Cowboys and The Hitter in particular), especially those doleful tales of loss and regret, conjour memories of the late great Johnny Cash, and are certainly just as brilliant.
Every song on the album is a winner, though ones of note are All The Way Home, The Hitter and Long Time Comin' (my personal favourite - the lyrics are exceptionally good).
Bruce Springsteen has spent much of his career alternating between introspective acoustics and bombastic exuberance. Both sides have their fans; he has tried to appease both sides by alternating between the two as much as possible. The fun of 1980's "The River" was countered by the grim bleakness of 1982's "Nebraska"; the hit-laden "Born In the USA" of 1984 was followed up in 1987 with the subdued "Tunnel of Love"; poppy double-act "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" were succeeded two years after release by 1994's "Ghost of Tom Joad". But despite occasionally mixing the two sides of his persona on one album - take 1978's "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" - Bruce has never really allowed the his bleak storytelling to quite fit in with the bombast of his E Street Band backing, keeping the two sides relatively separate. This is, until 2005's "Devils and Dust".
Bruce's previous set had been the post-9/11 "The Rising", a generally upbeat collection that sought to document the tragedy through all manner of perspectives - those who were "Countin' On A Miracle", those who were coming to terms with the "Lonesome Day"s ahead, those who were "Waitin' On A Sunny Day". By 2005, a more sombre tone had to be taken: the nation had come to terms with the terrorist attacks and had another problem on their hands - albeit, this one of their own accord: the Iraq War. It goes without saying, then, that Brucie, ever the left-leaning spokesman of the working class, would mine this particular issue for lyrical territory on what previous trends hinted would be a lyrically-focused, poetic and quiet affair, surely?
The reality was not quite so. Certainly, the Iraq War plays a key role in the stories Springsteen tells here - nowhere more so than on the title track, "Devils & Dust" - but it never dominates; the lyrics here are more wide-ranging in their scope, telling of every facet of small-town America that recalls "The Rising" in its sheer breadth. The music, meanwhile, is denser than previous "quieter" Springsteen efforts: some tracks tend towards the sparse acoustics of "Nebraska" but more lean towards a slightly more rocking approach, where the E Street Band prevent descent into tedium while never overpowering the moving tales Springsteen has to tell.
So, the songs themselves. The previously-mentioned "Devils and Dust" begins the album, and it's among the set's finest. Springsteen sings with conviction of the soldier who ponders the question "what if what you do to survive kills the things you love?" Regardless of your position on the current wars, it's a question we can all empathise with: even if "we've got God on our side", as Springsteen sings, killing people is not an easy thing to come to terms with. War will "take your god-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust", we are told, explaining the precise meaning of album's title.
Lyrically, Bruce is certainly on top form - but musically, it's a fine achievement too. Producer Brendan O'Brien - who many Springsteen fans have criticised for making the Springsteen sound of late "overblown", as if "Born to Run" was some kind of lesson in restraint - allows the slight backing to swell to a powerful climax - not powerful in its depth, like "Born to Run", but powerful in its emotional conveyance.
The album's most thoroughly out-and-out rock'n'roll tune is well-placed as the second track. "All the Way Home", originally written by Springsteen in the early '90s but never released until now, recalls the "recommendation with reservations" of his earlier "Tougher Than The Rest": compare "if you're rough enough for love / baby I'm tougher than the rest" with "but if you don't feel like walking alone / I could walk you all the way home". Musically, though, there is a sharp contrast between the tracks: "Tougher than the Rest" was a synthesizer-driven ballad; "All The Way Home" is driven by powerful drums and steel guitars. It's another fine cut.
"Reno" is the album's first thoroughly story-driven song - reflected in the lyrics booklet in its presentation as a single paragraph rather than line-by-line. It's also, intriguingly, the first song to warrant Springsteen a "Parental Advisory" sticker on the front of an album: its explicit depiction of an encounter with a prostitute is surprisingly visceral for the Boss. It's a surprisingly moving tale though; the final lines defining the disappointment and nostalgia that are pervasive throughout the album: "She said, 'Here's to the best you've ever had'. We laughed and made a toast. It wasn't the best I ever had. Not even close."
The song that comes closest to Springsteen's traditional catchy rockers occupies the track 4 slot. "Long Time Comin'" tells of the archetypal working-man-come-good: set in the imagery-laden area where "the creek turns shallow and sandy", Springsteen sings of a young man who, despite past failures, is convinced as he lies beside his pregnant girlfriend that he "ain't gonna fuck it up this time". He attempts to justify his past failures - "my daddy, he was just a stranger" - but ultimately accepts that his succumbing to maturity has "been a long time comin', but now it's here". It's not as heavily backed as the likes of peak-period Bruce rockers like "Badlands" and "No Surrender" but it's just as catchy.
"Black Cowboys" returns us to the speak-sung narrative style of "Reno"; here, Bruce laments Rainey Williams, a character who realises that when his mother falls in love with a new man it is his job to no longer "keep her soul alive" - her boyfriend can now do that - but to go off and make a life of his own. It's near-heartbreaking, made all the more effective not due to melodramatic, emotive language but thanks to the stark sparseness of it all. As the song concludes, and Rainey has left his mother, "the red sun slipped and was gone, the moon rose and stripped the earth to its bone". Once again, Bruce proves he is masterful at conveying imagery in the smallest number of words. The backing is minimal, with backing vocals from Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell occasionally serving to enhance the mood; the song needs nothing more.
"Maria's Bed" has proved controversial among Springsteen fans, as the Boss puts on something of a falsetto and sings passionately of returning to his lover "Maria's Bed" after "40 days and nights" working on the highways. The lyrics are laden with cliches - "sugar mountain", "fools gold" - but one feels that's rather the point, as Springsteen attempts to articulate the yearning of your average working man once again - as he has done so well on albums prior. Sweet backing "la la" vocals enhance the early verses, while keyboards, bass and even the hurdy-gurdy elevate the backing to a dense wall-of-sound by song's end. It's another winner.
Liner notes preceding the lyrics to the next track, "Silver Palomino", pretty much sums the song up: "a mother dies, leaving her young son to come to terms with the loss. In remembrance of Fiona Chappel, for her sons Tyler and Oliver". You can tell that this one is inflected with the personal emotions of Springsteen: his vocals are more impassioned - not powerful, but emotional - than anywhere else on the album; while the lyrics never fail to make me cry. I think the loss of one of your parents - either fear of it, or actually having to come to terms with it - is one of the most universally destroying emotions one can feel, and Springsteen does a fine job of articulating that emotion here, using a silver palomino horse as a metaphor for the mother-song bonding our characters here once felt. "The scent of your skin, mother, fills the air. 'Midst the harsh scrub pine that grows I watch the silver palomino." It's as genuinely moving as Springsteen has ever been. The backing music is once again very subdued, confined largely to acoustic guitar. But nothing else would be appropriate really, would it.
"Jesus Was An Only Son" takes the "religious song" concept to heretofore unknown regions: instead of questioning faith, or God, Springsteen simply tells the story of Jesus and Mary in terms of their universal mother-son relationship. (If you can hear hints of "Silver Palomino", you're quite right; parent-child relationships are dealt with here more throughly than any Springsteen album since "The River" has.) It's a sweet song, the lyrics are moving ("Jesus kissed his mother's hands, whispered 'Mother, still your tears, for remember the soul of the universe willed a world and it appeared'") and the backing music is low-key but melodic, with backing vocals once again contributing to mood and atmosphere.
"Leah" kicks up the tempo a little. There's no "Wall of Sound" but a catchy melody is pervasive. Lyrically, we're in familiar territory - a man yearns to be with the woman of his dreams, Leah - but it's another solid piece and Springsteen is, as ever, able to articulate the most powerful human emotions in understandable, relatable ways.
"The Hitter" is perhaps the album's lowest point. It's undoubtedly solid, lyrically, but rather like the weakest tracks of "The Ghost Of Tom Joad", the music is practically non-existent. A two-note acoustic guitar melody is all this track can offer, at a push. It reads wonderfully on paper - the tale of a small-town boxer making it big and then coming back down, now resorting to fighting in the "streets and alleys" is wonderful in its execution - but the music is just too plodding and tedious to make it a worthy listen.
Thankfully, relative catharsis returns with "All I'm Thinkin' About". Once again, the lyrics deal with young love and its inherently wild and unrestrained nature ("Ain't nothing in this world I can do about it / All I'm thinking about is you, baby") but it never feels like a retread - and more crucially, the music is catchy and memorable. Not anthemic, but quietly memorable.
"Matamoros Banks" is a fair conclusion to the album; it recalls "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" album in its preoccupation with the southern USA/Mexico border but it's more lyrically astute than much of that album, telling the story of a dying immigrant in reverse - from "the river keeping [him] down" to "walking over rivers of stone and ancient twine" to "dreaming of holding his love in his arms again". However, the music can tread dangerously close to "The Hitter" territory: I recognise the need for restraint with this subject matter but three-quarters of the songs here managed to tread the calm-loud line well; why couldn't it be done here? Nevertheless, it's enjoyable enough while it plays, and a nice thematic conclusion to the album.
Looking at the set as a whole, this is perhaps Bruce's most cinematic, widest-ranging, story-packed album yet. OK, so "Nebraska" and "Ghost" were marginally more story-focused - but neither has anywhere near the scope of this album. Here, the stories were confined to one theme; here, any and all aspects of working-class hardship get the Springsteen treatment. It's not the Boss' most consistent album, but it's a worthy buy, especially if you're a fan of acoustic Bruce but would like something a bit more upbeat without heading into the bombast of "Born to Run".
The CD comes with a lyric booklet that has minimal liner notes and the occasional translation of Spanish words and phrases that are sprinkled throughout the songs. The CD can be purchased alone or with a bonus DVD that includes a 5.1 Surround Sound cut of the album (that sounds fantastic) and live, "intimate", solo performances of five songs from the album ("Devils & Dust", "Long Time Comin'", "Reno", "All I'm Thinkin' About", "Matamoros Banks") filmed in Springsteen's own house. Springsteen introduces each with a 2-3 minute story behind its genesis, while the performances themselves are sharp and powerful; Boss aficionados will find plenty to love here.
Both the single CD and the CD-DVD "Dualdisc" set can be found for less than £5 on Amazon Marketplace.
The CD has a "Parental Advisory" sticker for sexually explicit lyrics in "Reno" and the word "fuck" in "Long Time Comin'".
Acoustic And Steel Guitars, Bottlenecks And A Harmonica. But Its Still Rock N Roll.
Performer Bruce Springsteen
The Album Devils & Dust.
Released 2005 on the Columbia/Sony label
Col 520000 2
£9.77 from Morisons
The Boss stripped down and basic. And for his troubles he gets a Parental Guidance sticker slapped onto the front of this cd. Apparently this is the first time for him. Well done.
Ive never been a great fan of Bruce Springsteen. I dont know why, but can only put it down to the exuberance of youth. Preferring to follow a more hard rock path. However, age, and a realisation that there is more to rock music than a basic 12 bar, has led me to the altar of the great Bruce.
And what a way to get hooked! Devils & Dust is a superb piece of Americana stripped down to its basic elements. Sprinsteen may be getting on now, but he still is able to show the young guns (men and women) chasing his coat tails a thing or two and this album leaves them standing with ease. Licking the dust of his heels from their lips.
Hes given the E Street Band a break and gone this alone. But the voice is still the same and the song writing is the best Ive heard from anyone in a long, long time. Each track on Devils & Dust is practically a blue print for a novel. The story telling within the confines of a song is superb; making sure that, on this record at least, none can be misinterpreted (remember Born In The USA, the most misconstrued rock song in rock history?).
So what do you get? Well, the whole project is nearly all acoustic giving Devils & Dust a truly modern folk feel. But its still a rock n roll record. Its the kind of thing that you would get Steve Earle trying for. The playing is raw and the vocals are rough edged, raw, making the songs sound immediate, almost as if theyve been written whilst the events that inspired each are being played out. I dont usually like to hear the steel guitar as it invokes memories of the sort of C&W that my mum used to listen to. On this, however, its perfect, because even if you know these songs are about America, the addition of the steel with the acoustic slide and harmonica sets the notion in steel reinforced concrete.
And the songs? This is music for the workingman, the songs are documents of the every day miseries, broken dreams, failures, fuck-ups and persistent hopes that get to us all. But, dont expect a Dylanesque protest album. No, what you get is songs about the way it is, theres no complaining or wishing things to change, just songs that speak of regrets and the sort of dogged determination, and hopes, to get things right next time that only the blue collar man has experienced.
And this makes the songs even more remarkable, given Bruces bank balance. It must be many years since he could sit on street corners and watch the world go by, or go sleep under the stars with the wife and kids. Hes either got a good memory, a good imagination or some on e to speak to. When you listen to this album you can see the characters jump into your mind, in clear view. You feel for these people. You see the tired eyes and the frayed jeans and the worn out boots. Man, youd be hard pressed to find writing this emotive in a best selling book.
Standout tracks? Well there really are all standout but Devils & Dust, Reno, Long Time Comin, Marias Gold (very Faces) and The Hitter all grabbed me first time around, the rest got me on the second.
And the package you get is top notch too. This came as a double disk set with the second disc containing a DVD recording of five songs from the album, and the whole album repeated in 5.1 sound. For £9.97, you cannot go wrong. The live songs were filmed in an old house and just have Bruce on his own, playing an acoustic guitar, singing and blowing a harmonica. Unfortunately theyve dubbed in drums and bass and they really shouldve left it alone. But, even The Boss cant get it right all of the time now can he?
If, like me youve never heard a lot of Springsteen before, then make this the album to start with. I really cannot say enough good about it. A fabulous piece of American acoustic rock music and sets the benchmark for all those wannabes desperately clinging onto his shirt tails.