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Bruce Springsteen - Devils & Dust Print E-mail
Tuesday, 26 April 2005

Bruce Springsteen

Devils & Dust
format: DualDisc
label: Columbia
release year: 2005
performance: 7.5
sound: 8
reviewed by: John Sutton-Smith

Image Bruce Springsteen is a modern American icon – it’s hard to criticize him because he tries so hard and cares so much and always means his best. And most of the time he delivers, even here on Devils & Dust, his 13th studio album since his debut in the spring of ’73. The world has changed a lot since then and Bruce has changed along with it.

His reflections and recollections have mirrored the drama of the American landscape like Steinbeck and Frost, Ginsberg and Kerouac. Now, though, like Dylan did in the ‘80s, Springsteen has reached a plateau of ideas and lyrical vision. He’s been getting there for a while, I guess, but on D&D it’s getting more obvious. I know he’s getting older, but he’s starting to repeat ideas. It was disguised over the last decade, because his last studio work The Rising sprung from such a wellspring of raw emotion from 9/11 and required taking on a universal, or at least national, voice of outrage, understanding and resolve that bore such a heavy weight of responsibility. Although not his greatest musical moment, it was perhaps his finest hour.

Now, with all that stripped away, Bruce is facing his own demons and mortality; like Nebraska and Tom Joad before it, D&D displays Springsteen’s honesty of intent and undiluted compassion for his fellow man, but for the first time, one feels, it’s nothing new. Yes, he embodies the mind of the fragile GI on the title track and the ill-fated illegales of “Matamoros Banks” and finds his customary redemption in hookers, grifters and railroad bums – outsiders of all stripes in a rich pageant of Edward Hopper-like portraits. And there are harsh details of love gone awry on “Reno” and “Maria’s Bed” that even get Bruce his first sticker warning. But there’s a sense of going over old ground on D&D that must be a bit depressing for many old Boss fans like me.

Granted, the production is impeccable: the sound is pristine, the arrangements spare on occasion, a little over-polished at other times, and the sense of dollars and gravitas are in equal balance. We don’t expect the raw exuberance of Born to Run and before, or even the emotional intensity that Springsteen has maintained longer than most veteran artists, kind of an endurance record like the Cal Ripken of rock and roll, but we do expect from Bruce above everything else a sense of poetry and purpose. And here the portraits all seem a little too familiar, like you’ve heard that one before.

The 5.1 Dolby digital Surround Sound mix on Devils & Dust adds a fullness and sense of immediacy that involves without overwhelming the sound. Every mix has its own personality, of course, according to the style and inclination of the engineer and artist, and 5.1 mixes even more so. The budget too has a bearing on these things; the bigger the artist, the bigger the budget and the more expansive the mix might be, for better or worse.

Here Springsteen’s subdued sentiments demand moderation and limits within the expanded realms of 5.1, and mixer Nick Didia wisely kept the instruments in a controllable intimate setting, allowing Bruce’s vocal to lead from the front and the musicians to follow behind and around.

The DVD side features a rather mediocre video of Bruce performing five of the songs “live,” alone in a darkened room, singing and playing guitar and harmonica, and telling us these songs chronicle how dangerous the world has become, all in a moody, dark, pseudo-sexy, self-important style that undermines the modicum of soul and instinct that he has left in his songs. Thankfully, he’s wise enough to know he’s way past the age of booty shaking in his videos, but while there are no butts, there are lots of what-ifs and ands …

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