RATING: 2 / 5 stars
By Chris Moore:
I had read many reviews of this album long before I ever listened to it, and they were all good. They weren’t simply good reviews. Rather, Rolling Stone among others made this out to be the most incredible Springsteen album in years, if ever. Thus, my expectations were high when I bought Devils and Dust late one night and eagerly cranked it up for my half hour drive home.
The first track—the title track—is a nice start to a dark album, but I found myself disappointed quickly. Perhaps it was because I expected more upbeat songs, a la The Rising. Or perhaps it was because I was driving home with the windows open, cool breeze in my face, and I was having trouble hearing what Springsteen was singing. Whatever the reason, I quickly became disappointed with the release and told my friends why I thought it was overrated.
While I have not decided to declare this a veritable masterpiece that I initially overlooked, I must admit that my opinion of the album has softened with time. What helped to change my mind was viewing the DVD side of this DualDisc release. While the stripped-down nature of the studio recordings initially turned me off—and I usually have nothing against bare bones recordings—his live, solo acoustic performances allowed me to hear the songs for themselves, independent of my initial expectations. Springsteen appeared Dylan-esque, complete with acoustic guitar and harmonica rack. I loved “Devils and Dust” all the more here for its directness, for its simplicity. Suddenly, it was as though he was singing an old folk song—a well-written, dark yet catchy number. “Long Time Comin’” stood out to me again, having been one of my favorite album tracks.
There was something in Springsteen’s commentary in between songs that captured my interest and sparked my respect for the man. He seemed to be legitimately interested in writing minimalist songs as personal narratives both autobiographical and fictional. “Reno” is the perfect example of this captivating and revolting blend between the real and the conjured, the noble and the pitiful that he is able to weave together so well. In the best songs on this album, Springsteen exposes a subtle poetic sensibility that lends credibility and interest to his work. In subsequent listenings, I have found myself most taken in by these occasionally vivid and descriptive turns of phrase.
Still, I don’t quite understand some of the choices he made for the songs on this album. For instance, why did he sing the penultimate track, “All I’m Thinkin’ About,” in the odd, cracked voice manner that he did? Furthermore, why did he choose some of the subject matter that he did? What are the Matamoros Banks and would it make a difference if we knew? After all, I wonder why he would sing such a pretty song about a place that I have difficulty relating to, even after he has described it through his song. These are the moments — hearing him sing in unusual manners for no apparent reason and memorializing specific places that I have difficulty understanding the importance of — that I wonder what is so masterful about this album. It is a decent album, to be sure, and contains some good songs, but it is more of a return to roots than a step forward.
For all that I am impressed with the earthiness of the songs, the fervent attention to immortalizing the devils and the dust, I am still most in awe of a song like “Jesus Was An Only Son.” For its interesting depiction of an oft-discussed historical figure/son of God/son of man, for its flowing tune, and for its haunting organ riffing in the background, I wonder what the album would have been like if as much attention had been paid to the other tracks.
While its slow, gritty ballads pay homage to its namesake, I can’t help but note that if the album had been comprised of “Devils and Dust”’s and “Jesus Was An Only Son”’s, I may have called it masterful.