That Time Bruce Springsteen Went Solo, Again, With ‘Devils and Dust’
After reuniting the E Street Band for a couple of world tours and The Rising, Bruce Springsteen went at it alone again for most of his next album. The result, Devils & Dust, came out on April 26, 2005.
It’s easy to look at Devils & Dust as a sort of sequel to The Ghost of Tom Joad, which had been released 10 years earlier. Many of its songs stem from sessions Bruce held in 1997-8, with producer Brendan O’Brien brought in in 2004 to help build upon those recordings. “I said, ‘You can do it one of two ways,’” O’Brien told Peter Ames Carlin in Bruce. “‘Either just like this, as per Nebraska, which not a lot of people would connect to, or else another way.”
Springsteen played most of the instruments himself, with Steve Jordan playing drums and strings, horns and pedal steel performed by session pros. Danny Federici, Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell are the only E Street Band members who appear. The result is arguably the best-produced of the four Springsteen records O’Brien worked on between 2002 and 2009. Even on the more heavily arranged songs, there’s more room for the songs to breathe than within the compressed clutter of The Rising, Magic and Working on a Dream.
Its title track, the most recent of its songs, is one of Springsteen's most powerful statements about war. Like his “Born in U.S.A.” or Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding,” it doesn’t comment on the rightness or wrongness of the war, but rather forces us to reflect upon the human consequences. In this case, it’s a soldier in Iraq. “I’ve got God on my side / And I’m just trying to survive / But what if you do to survive kills the thing you love / Fear’s a powerful thing / It can turn your heart black, you can trust / It’ll take your God-filled soul / Fill it with devils and dust.”
The other standout is “Long Time Comin,’” where the narrator, expecting his third child, is determined to not make the mistakes of his absentee father. It’s a rollicking folk-rock tune, with pedal steel and violin weaving in and out while being tied together by Steve Jordan’s drums. The song further came to life when a horn section was added on his 2006 tour in support of We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
As with Tom Joad, Springsteen’s vocals on most songs barely rise above a whisper. It works well on a pair of love songs, “Maria’s Bed” and “Leah” — adding some much-needed levity — and on the moving closer, “Matamoros Banks.” where it infuses a sense of dignity into a man drowning while trying to cross the U.S. - Mexico border.
But the vocal approach threatens to sink the album midway through on three songs, “Silver Palomino,” “Black Cowboys” and “The Hitter.” The characters and their dilemmas are as compelling as anything Springsteen has written, but between the sparse settings, lack of choruses and thin melodies, they would have worked better as short stories. That said, the narrative strength of "The Hitter" was brought out when he performed it on his solo acoustic tour in support of the record.
And then there is “Reno,” which has become a bit of a punchline among some fans. It describes, in detail not associated with Springsteen, an encounter with a prostitute where he spends most of the time thinking about someone else.
Even with the more interesting musical settings, the album doesn’t hold together as well as Tom Joad. It’s a fairly strong collection of songs but, like 2014’s High Hopes, Devil’s & Dust lacks the thematic focus expected from Springsteen. It takes the listener from Iraq to the Southwest to biblical times to the South Bronx to various bedrooms without flowing naturally.