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The Boss stripped down
Devils & Dust - Bruce Springsteen
Member Name: Praskipark
Devils & Dust - Bruce Springsteen
Date: 17/12/12, updated on 23/03/13 (72 review reads)
Advantages: Beautiful songwriting, mixture of interesting instruments, strong images, great guitar work
Disadvantages: None for me but some people might find his vocal range rather odd
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.
Summary: An extremely intelligent and moving album