"The personal, political and spiritual merge in the new album's title song.... The narrator of 'Devils & Dust' could be a soldier in Iraq or America itself."
--Jon Pareles on Bruce Springsteen's new album, New York Times, April 24
In myth and very largely in fact, Bruce Springsteen has always been the guy who was--his own words--tougher than the rest, the rock star who resisted hazards of the rock star life ranging from the relatively trivial but offensive practice of taking corporate jingle money to the more serious peril of choking on the vapors of one's own celebrity, personal prerogative, and boredom. He was, and is, no Elvis Presley. But what would you do if it were a fairly routine thing to get up in the morning and read the preceding sort of puffery about yourself? Could you laugh it off and go back to your job? Even if you did, would you be able to keep laughing after literary and cultural eminences like Walker Percy and Robert Coles began to join the chorus proclaiming you the bard and balm of the people, and a literary giant in rocker's rags to boot? Being called the future of rock & roll is one thing, heady to be sure; but for any son of the working class as smart and ambitious as Bruce Springsteen, it has to pale beside the siren call of being termed a serious literary and cultural figure. How long then before you start to be cast in stone and to think like a Serious Writer, instead of writing seriously?
The practical danger in that kind of stultifying embrace is self-satisfaction: reaching a point where it becomes hard to edit your own work anymore, easy to mistake the prosaic for the profound and to begin buying into two-dimensional, cul-de-sac notions of your job as an artist. (When you're a national resource as well as a legend, it's practically irresponsible not to simply let the healing waters flow--which is to say, to repeat yourself to the point of pandering.) The last song on Devils & Dust sums up the dilemma posed by the record. "Matamoros Banks" is a lovely and superbly crafted ballad. It is also (in subject, themes, even setting) a direct rewrite of the next-to-last song on his 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad, where it was called "Across the Border." Except this time the protagonist dies. In fact, he's dead when the song starts, and Springsteen then works backward in the man's own voice to explain the lover's journey that put him there. Nicely done, and so what? I think the answer is as simple as it is banal: Springsteen fell in love with the lyric turn he was able to work in this version of the story.
I'm not saying "full of itself" deserves to be the last word on the record, but it belongs in the discussion. Springsteen himself (who seems entirely too ready to tell everybody what these songs mean and how they were put together--as if to withhold such insights would be, yes, irresponsible) has been saying that the songs revolve around spiritual crises, moments when his characters find themselves "in danger or at risk." This is patently true; also fatuous, since Springsteen's best songs have always implicated "spiritual crises," questions of doubt and faith and of finding the means to persevere, behind the romantic or material ones.
I hated the record the first few times through. That was too arch. It's not terrible. Some of it--the title track, "Reno," "The Hitter," maybe one or two others--is very good, and the rest has momentary pleasures, but they're mostly familiar ones. Brendan O'Brien's production does a near-heroic job of dressing up what are mostly 10-year-old vocal demos with spare, sparklingly clear guitars and drums, but it can't conceal how little O'Brien had to work with. It's by light years Springsteen's most rote and disjointed record musically, and the vocals aren't much better--mumbling, indistinct, affected, and above all self-impressed. Apart from the two records he released in 1992, Human Touch and Lucky Town, it harbors the fewest ambitions, or maybe just the least interesting ambitions, of any Springsteen record.
At bottom, the main subject of Devils & Dust, as best I can hear it so far, is songwriting, no less and, unfortunately, no more--the craft of it, that is, construed as a mostly formal, literary matter. How else to understand the fact that more than two-thirds of the songs here are rewrites of or variations on other songs from his past four albums? The effect of the record's literary self-consciousness is to set Springsteen at a greater distance from his characters, who are more prone than usual to seeming like types, or factors in a mainly formal equation. The more Springsteen heaps concrete detail on the little boy in "Black Cowboys," to take the most glaring example, the more palpably the boy seems like a literary device, a means to the end of constructing a metaphor. And absent the sense of a flesh-and-blood presence in the song, it's a pretty banal metaphor in the end. Again, not terrible--but it's writers' workshop stuff. It's precious. It's beneath a writer of his talents. At times Devils & Dust sounds unnervingly like Bruce Springsteen, littérateur, taking a victory lap before settling in on the Mt. Rushmore of Americana, nestled alongside Lincoln, John Steinbeck, and--I can't make out whether the last one is Woody Guthrie or Raymond Carver, but does it matter?
There are two possibilities here. One is that, for reasons not readily apparent, this was material Springsteen needed to trot out to get past a particular sort of writer's block. The other, speaking of literary fixations, is that Ernest Hemingway reviewed this record in 1957, in the following passage about F. Scott Fitzgerald: "His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and their construction and he learned to think and could not fly anymore because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless."
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