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Springsteen's State of the Union
[Album review] The Boss looks deep into the American soul and doesn't like what he sees
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Print Article 
Published 2005-05-05 16:29 (KST)   
Bruce Springsteen: "Devils & Dust"
Released: April 26, 2005


Bono once said of Bruce Springsteen that his eyes "see through America," that his nickname may be "the Boss," but actually, "he works for us." Indeed, a new Springsteen album is an occasion to hear a more reliable State of the Union address than those delivered by any U.S. president. Too bad we have to wait so long between releases.

Throughout his 32-year career Springsteen has tried to balance the rock in his sound with the poetry of his lyrics. "Devils and Dust," his newest album in three years, alternates between bone-bleached narratives and upbeat rockers without the aid of his posse, The E Street Band. While the overall effect may not feel as inspired as 2002's "The Rising," or as emotionally raw as 1982's "Nebraska," it's still a captivating collection of songs resonating with the barren landscapes that lie alongside every wide open road.

©2005 Sony
Over the years, Springsteen has made an effort to identify with the American singer/songwriter tradition that includes current wunderkind, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and stretches back through Steve Earle and Bob Dylan to dustbowl balladeer, Woody Guthrie. What these artists share is a compulsion to illuminate the suffering of the dispossessed and embody the conscience of a nation in a highly personalized vernacular. "Devils and Dust" succeeds in this by encapsulating the sense of trauma and moral uncertainty that has engulfed the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks.

"Devils and Dust," the opening tune, sets a tone of foreboding that hooks itself under the skin, pulling the listener into its desolate landscape of "blood and stone." Accompanying himself solely with guitar and harmonica, Springsteen conveys the sudden awareness of a soldier, perhaps in Iraq, who has been put in harm's way by leaders he can no longer trust:
I got my finger on the trigger
But I don't know who to trust
When I look into your eyes
There's just devils and dust
The disillusionment of a country betraying its conscience in such careless abuses as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse debacle is evoked in a haunting refrain:
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love?
With bitter lucidity, the song captures the fear that has characterized much of the discourse in the U.S. since 9/11:
Fear's a powerful thing
It can turn your heart black you can trust
It'll take your God filled soul
And fill it with devils and dust
Easily the standout track on the album, "Devils and Dust" is a powerful tome that benefits from Brendan O'Brien's sympathetic production and the dramatic orchestral accompaniment of the Nashville String Machine. If only the rest of the album maintained this intensity.

Unfortunately, it doesn't and the next two tracks, "All The Way Home" and "Reno" are the album's only duds. On "All The Way Home," the singer may claim to "know what it's like to have failed/With the whole wide world looking on," a possible reference to Springsteen's pro-Kerry stance during last fall's U.S. election, but what, if anything, he has learned isn't apparent here. The pedestrian arrangement and woefully derivative guitar riff wouldn't be out of place on his 1992 career low, "Human Touch."

Kudos has to go out to "Reno," the next track, for being the most awkward song in Springsteen's entire catalogue. An attempt to bring pulp-porn into narrative songwriting, the squirm effect must be similar to sitting in on the Jackson trial's tawdry allegations of child sex:
"'Two hundred dollars straight in, two-fifty up the ass'
She smiled and said
She unbuckled my belt, pulled back her hair
And sat in front of me on the bed"
The song's rusty slide-guitar, scratching like nails on a blackboard, only enhances the discomfort.

"Long Time Comin,'" a welcome breath of fresh air after that previous dose of claustrophobic voyeurism, pulls the album back from the brink. Its swaggering strum, buoyant fiddle and freewheeling steel guitar evoke alt-country progenitors, Uncle Tupelo, enhancing the exuberance of the lyric:
Tonight I'm gonna get birth naked
And bury my old soul
And dance on its grave
This wide-screen euphoria is followed by "Black Cowboys," one of the album's most poignant songs, detailing a mother's sad neglect of her young son Rainey:
The smile Rainey depended on dusted away,
The arms that held him were no more his home
He lay at night his head pressed to her chest
Listening to the ghost in her bones
"Silver Palomino," a skeletal acoustic piece reminiscent of 1995's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," conjures Tom Russell's cowboy/vaqueros songs, complete with references to mustaneros (mustangs) and the pradera (prairie), as the album footnotes spell out.

Much of Springsteen's work has been informed by Christian imagery, and "Jesus Was An Only Son" recalls the traditional gospel of 2002's superb, "My City of Ruins." Warmed by a churning organ, Springsteen retells Jesus' last hours as he tries to comfort his mother:
'Mother, still your tears
For remember the soul of the universe
Willed a world and it appeared'
It's a potent reminder that miracles can happen and in fact, may need to be willed into existence.

"The Hitter," another notably sparse track, is a cold tale about a son returning to his mother, not for comfort, but for a brief rest before heading out to play his role in a desperate "game":
Understand, in the end, Ma
Every man plays the game
If you know me one different
Then speak out his name
The final song, "Matamoros Banks," is a compelling reminder of the suffering caused when migrant workers from Mexico try their luck crossing the U.S. border in pursuit of the American dream. Too many die trying, their bodies left where the "turtles eat the skin from your eyes, so they lay open to the stars." It's a grizzly image of abandonment, one that turns the Statue of Liberty's "huddled masses" message on its head.

As a Canadian, Springsteen's allure for me has been his enduring ability to uncover the darkness at the edges of the "runaway American dream" that he identified 30 years ago on his signature song, "Born To Run." While "Devils and Dust," may not be a perfect address, it succeeds in delivering the warning that America in 2005 has run off course. Someone take the wheel ... please.
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©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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