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2023/4 Albums Thing 341 - Bruce Springsteen “Devils & Dust”

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“Devils & Dust” is Springsteen’s 3rd “Acoustic” album, sharing loose stylistic roots with “Nebraska” and “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”. It isn’t however the overtly acoustic album that those two musical cousins are. We do get gentle introspective songs but there’s some full band “rockers” involved too. What is often regarded as a solo acoustic record doesn’t have any completely solo performances on it.

It was released in 2005 but the writer admitted that many of the songs had been written 10 or more years prior. “All The Way Home” was written for Southside Johnny in 1991; the wonderful “Long Time Coming” and “The Hitter” are from the “…Tom Joad” period. Waste not want not I guess. 

The title track sees us post 9/11. Written in the early years of the resulting 2nd Iraq war, the writer sings from the point of view of a soldier in that war who is questioning his feelings toward his (and his countries ?) involvement and, importantly, his part in things. He’s seen his friend die in action (“Well I dreamed of you last night, In a field of blood and stone”) and is now wrestling with what the war is doing to him (“I got God on my side, I’m just trying to survive, What if what you do to survive, Kills the things you love…It’ll take your God filled soul, And fill it with devils and dust”). This is all set within acoustic guitars and strings in a way that harks back to “…Tom Joad”.  There are some powerful ideas expressed in this song, ideas rarely discussed in a country which so often defines itself by its military.

“All The Way Home” shatters any notion that this is another acoustic collection. It’s a full band workout, a bit of a rocker, whereas when first recorded by Southside Johnny it was a soulful ballad. This sets up the 1-2 punch that most of “Devils & Dust” adheres to, solo Bruce followed by Bruce and Band, until we get toward the end.

The lyrically explicit “Reno” caused quite the controversy. Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, has said of it “”My artistic side said, ‘That is so brave.’ Then, just thinking right from the heart, I was like, ‘What are you writing about that shit for? Are you fucking crazy?’ ”. Without sugar coating what’s happening “Reno” tells of an, ultimately disappointing, liaison with a working girl while the punter daydreams of being with Maria somewhere between Guatemala and Peru and having everything he needs but “Somehow all you ever need's never really quite enough”. Amongst all that it’s a bloody gorgeous song and a fabulous performance. Incidentally on the vinyl release “Reno” sits at the end of Side 1, while at the end of Side 2 we find “Maria’s Bed” in which we’re told “I was burned by the angels, sold wings of lead, Then I fell in the roses and sweet salvation of Maria's bed”.

“Long Time Comin’” might be one of my favourite Springsteen songs. For a rudimentary guitarist like myself (I follow the Joe Strummer method, “I can only play all six strings at once or none at all” !) it’s dead easy to play and sound vaguely like it does on the record. It’s a closing of the book on Springsteen’s father and son songs. There’s a telling section in his biography where, just before the birth of Bruce and Patti Scialfa’s first child, his father, knowing how much his sons life is about to change, visits and offers an apology of sorts for his “parenting” toward his son…something like “you’ve been good to us…I haven’t always been good to you”. This song revolves around a camping trip the Springsteen’s took before the birth of their 3rd child, Bruce trying to be a better Dad to his kids than his had admitted he had been to him, the pivotal admission being “Well if I had one wish in this god forsaken world, kids, It’d be that your mistakes would be your own, Yeah your sins would be your own”.

“Leah” covers some of the same ground. A man now ready to accept that he can love and be loved, released from (some of) his demons by his fathers apology perhaps. The brighter outlook is underlined with its beautiful TexMex horns. 

The record ends on “Matamoros Banks”, laying out the pain of a Mexican, drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande to the US, being returned to Mexico. Both these songs have that TexMex colour to them that we encountered on “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”. It’s an atmosphere that we’ll find in many Springsteen songs from here on.

“Devils & Dust” hit #1 in the US and was supported by the solo “Devils & Dust tour”, just Springsteen (well, him and a couple of Roadies playing keyboards offstage) and an array of instruments. The album has an overall feel of the great outdoors, the range, America’s wide open country about it. It's more along the road of musical themes that will coalesce in a few years on one of his finest records.

Reno - https://youtu.be/8TXYAaJeSS0?si=JhuD4wbu08_c4xs-

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