Bruce Springsteen’s 13th studio release steps away from the thematic focus of much of his studio work–the notion of a broad narrative woven around people in a very similar time and a place–to walk alongside a disparate mix of characters working through the way they’ve played the cards they were dealt.
In the title track, soldiers far from home feel themselves changing under the weight of war, thrust into a conflict that pits faith against fear. Early in his career, Springsteen would have likely given faith the winning hand, but here he sings, “tonight faith just ain’t enough, when I look inside my heart, there’s just devils and dust.”
As in much of Springsteen’s work, personal demons populate almost every room. But these demons, be they lust or ill-gotten cash, are no longer something to face down in the Badlands–they’re part of the cultural fabric, an occasional reward for making it this far.
The backstory of almost every character that emerges on the album is that something has gone wrong, but it can’t be fixed and there’s nothing to do but push forward. In itself, this is true to Springsteen’s oeuvre, but the twist here is that hope moves into the backseat and tenacity takes the wheel. These songs speak more to the path of the mysterious girlfriend in the shadows of 1980’s “Point Blank” than to the protagonist that mourns the dimming of her heartlight.
Springsteen has said that most of the material on “Devils & Dust” was written around the time of the tour following 1995’s “Ghost of Tom Joad,” though on close listen, there’s little here that evokes a direct echo of that collection. While an acoustic guitar winds through almost every track, Springsteen and producer Brendan O’Brien have crafted an album that is a very different animal from Springsteen’s past acoustic excursions.
Recurring string arrangements and occasional blasts of garage-combo backbeat ramp up the dramatic range of the album, pumping “All The Way Home” into a toe-tapping sonic cousin to Joe Ely’s “All Just To Get To You,” (which Springsteen guested on), and imbueing “Matamoros Banks” with a haunting beauty.
Yet not every track is a winner. “Reno,” with its explicit glimpse into a transaction between a prostitute and a john, adds grit but no gravity to the package. And “Leah” feels under-developed.
While clearly not intended for E Street Band fanatics, “Devils & Dust” is a powerful, if slightly uneven slice of Americana that demands a few listens to soak in.