Long Time Comin'
The new Springsteen album “Devils and Dust” starts off with a typical Bruce narrator, someone in great pain, intense crisis. Someone asking hard and awkward questions, questions nobody wants to hear. Everything he is, believes in, has been stripped to the bone (a repeated image this go around), and it seems no one is there to listen, no one to care. Not even God, as his God-filled soul has been replaced with devils and dust, thanks to the fearful and fearsome situation created by those he once thought he could trust.
That sense of lonely torment causes the questions to linger, resonate. And so too does the music on this song, the title track, and throughout this outing, Springsteen’s most focused and inspired since Nebraska.
“What if what you do to survive kills the things you love?” asks a soldier in Iraq as the music on the title cut builds.
Could this narrator be speaking of the country he was born in? Could the singer’s intense pain and great crisis represent that of the country as a whole? Is the soul of the U.S.A in the process of being stripped to the bone?Yeah, maybe
The opener is followed by the rocking tune “All the Way Home.” The sound and lyrics are somewhat reminiscent of “Dancing in the Dark” (hey baby, take a chance on me), but it’s quickly apparent that the new tune is richer, musically and lyrically, than the arena/pop anthem of mid-eighties Bruce. The harmonica, in particular, is raw and real.
Two songs in, and the rhythm and the themes of this album are established, and they are carried through with coherent vision. We move back and forth between slow, somber reflection – intimate (shockingly so on the sexually graphic “Reno”) tales of human beings failing other human beings, failing themselves – to up-tempo, musically tight songs of affirmation, where the protagonists throw caution to the wind, take chances, commit to each other, try to make something better, find a reason to believe.
The slow, acoustic numbers form a sort of album-length version of the “bring it down” get quiet and feel really soulful for a minute song breaks of Bruce’s early work. But these aren’t the songs of a “Nebraska” or even a “Ghost of Tom Joad.” Fast or slow, this is a new, country-tinged sound for Bruce, and apparently he is so delighted with it that he’s filled out the tracks –to rocking and/or cinematic effect -- with touches of violin, organ, the Nashville String Machine, horns, and on one song an electric sarangi.
So we have introspection, sad tales, hard questions, followed by rock music that affirms the human spirit, resilience. It’s a day, or night, at church, the church of rock-n-roll, led by preacherman Bruce, who finds his soul is saved in Maria’s bed.
“Holy man said, Hold on brother, there’s a light up ahead, Ain’t nothing like the light shining on me in Maria’s bed.”
“Is this a political album?” a friend asked. Not overtly, except for the title track with its obvious reference to Iraq. But it is in that it is an album about human dignity, the loss of such, the pathos of the loss, the beauty in the struggle to keep it alive.
It’s about the fragility of our situation. How we fail each other. Mothers and fathers fail their offspring. Governments fail their people (or people fail to demand better). We’re wounded, we move along, we drift. Finally, “we live with the sadness” to quote an early, famous song, and we find some solace, some refuge, and, ultimately, meaning, close to home, in ourselves, our actions, our families and loved ones.
And when we do so, we try to pass it along to the next generation, give them a leg up as it where. Bruce sings on the vintage-sounding, John Mellencampesque rocker “Long Time Commin,” which sounds like a Human Touch or Lucky Town tune minus the bombast and ersatz soul: “If I had one wish in this Godforsaken world, kids, it’s that your mistakes would be your own, yeah, your sins would be your own.” The wish is especially poignant in that the narrator is someone whose father was just a man he’d see around town when he was growing up. The cycle of pain and misery stops with the singer, however; he ends the song noting that he has two kids and one on the way, and that he “ain’t gonna fuck it up this time.”
Finally, Bruce employs his deft touch with light, sweet pop to capture the essence of this album. In the song “Leah,” the singer recognizes that although he walks a road filled with shadow and doubt, and that “with this hand I’ve built, and with this I’ve burned,” he’s still focused on building a house on higher ground, where he will “sleep in the same bed, search for the same proof/as Leah.”
On this album, where the devils and dust swirl mercilessly, the declaration feels small and inconsequential, but also important and worth celebrating, as is this strong new release from one of America’s best songwriters.