Bruce Springsteen – Devils & Dust (2005)

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by Mark Saleski

Every true music fan has in their pocket a short list: the artists who hold special meaning. Our relationships to those artists are different from the rest. Each release means something. They’re not just records, they’re events, they’re signposts … repositories of all related memories: past, present and future.

Shortly after I initially cracked open Bruce Springsteen’s Devils and Dust in 2005, before a single note was heard, a couple of very important memories fell out. The older of the two happened back in ’82. On a routine trip to the University of Maine bookstore, I found an astounding and pleasant surprise: Nebraska. This was back before the Internet, so there was no advance warning. Here I was on my usual path, attempting to quench the music thirst and I’d been handed an ocean of relief. I remember the feel of the shrink wrapped cover, maybe even a little of that plastic smell. Back at the dorm, when I waved the album in the air so as to tease my friend Ed, his jaw dropped open in awe (we had recently become so anamoured of the Springsteen bootlegs “Live at the Agora” and “Fire From The Fingertips” that we’d been listening to them to the exclusion of most other music).

To be honest, I can’t quite remember my initial reaction to the music. Thematically, the material followed Springsteen’s penchant for following characters through their bad and good. Musically, this was not The River. Instead, things were all stripped down. I liked what I heard and instinctively knew that it was great … but at the same time … I just wasn’t ready for it and didn’t know what to think.

A more recent memory was again of a solo Springsteen release. I brought my new copy of The Ghost of Tom Joad over to my fiance’s house to give it a first listen. With the “Nebraska incident” fresh in my mind, me and Linda sat on the couch and listened to the record straight though while reading from the lyric sheet. It’s easy for me to tear up thinking about this now, because I remember being just so happy at being able to share my discovery of the music with her in this way — something I was never able to do in my first marriage.

Now, it was time for Devils and Dust to make its own way. I sat very late at night, in a hotel room on the coast of Maine. Linda (you know her now as TheWife™) was sleeping soundly, swallowed by the enormous king-size bed. In the quiet, I found that it was tough to put the old memories aside to make room for the new ones.

You have to constantly be writing from your own inner core in some fashion I find y’know? … No matter how you dress it, y’know? … Whether, in my early records where I was sort of dressing it whether it was in New York City or whether it was on the Jersey shore or whether it was set in the West. You’re still writing from the essential core of who you are. That has has to be at place in every song or the song dies. The point of it was your own voice is supposed to, if you’re doing it correctly, is supposed to disappear into the voice of the person … uhm … you’re singing about and who’s telling you the story. What would they do? What wouldn’t they do? How would they behave in this circumstance? The rhythm of their speech … that’s where the music comes in.

This was how Springsteen explained his method of narrative and song construction, from the DVD side of Devils and Dust. Yes, in that American troubadour style of storytelling, Springsteen does indeed disappear into the varied cast of characters … to discover how they’ll make it through their long ago, and their tomorrow.

Unlike both Nebraska and Tom Joad, the characters here were a little more diverse. There was the conflicted soldier of the title track, the hopeful parent of “Long Time Coming”, the crushed romantic (“Reno”), the motherless son (“Silver Palomino”) and even Jesus Christ (the powerful “Jesus Was An Only Child”).

These were all songs about people whose souls are in danger … or at risk through where they are in the world or what the world is bringing to them. That’s a human constant. And whether people are religious or spiritual or not … that risk is something people instinctively feel on a daily basis.

Some of the people navigated through their trouble successfully. Others met with tragic ends. Devils and Dust ended with the sad reverse-chronology of a man’s attempt at finding a better life in the United States by way of the Rio Grande river. Given the title track’s ambivalence toward war, “Matamoros Banks” seemed like a fitting conclusion: People die ‘for us’ for many reasons.

Musically, Devils and Dust has much more of a full band sound than its cousin-recordings, with Springsteen handling many of the instruments but with backing help from a variety of guests including the rock-solid Steve Jordan on drums, Dan Federici on keyboards and Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell on vocals. The DVD side of the DualDisc has Bruce playing five of the tunes on acoustic guitar. “Reno” and “Matamoros Banks” are far mor powerful in this format.

I wondered, even then, if many years from now I’d look back at my introduction to Devils and Dust and remember the vacation that embraced it … that a band named Green Day played a sold-out show right around the corner, that it rained for most of the day, that I wished I could never leave this city … that it all happened while I was staying on the 12th floor of this old hotel.

We’ll see.

I hope.

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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