“I want to know if love is real.”
Bruce Springsteen shouted it on 1975’s “Born to Run:” a declaration of his rock& roll quest. With each decade, this apparently simple question of faith and possibility has grown darker and more complex. By 1987’s Tunnel of Love, Springsteen was talking about having to “live with what you can’t rise above.” And by 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, he was hinting that we need to believe because, “What are we without hope in our hearts?” Springsteen’s latest, Devils & Dust, pushes the issue even harder. Playing nearly all the instruments, moaning and murmuring his way across the (mostly) quiet melodies, Springsteen has gathered a set of songs that circle a central and inescapable emptiness. What if love is real — and, on some fundamental level, that doesn’t change things? How do we go on?
It’s not a question that lends itself to shouting. The new CD is dark, dense, and, at its core, non-verbal. Listen to its muted vocals, its droning melodies, and the first impression is that Springsteen doesn’t really want to sing these songs or ask these questions. It’s the sound of a man at the edge of what he understands, who then decides to jump. In the journey (or free-fall) that follows, we seem to go places: from the battlefields of Iraq to the South Bronx to the Mexican border. But this isn’t the highway full of broken heroes that Springsteen rode to fame on “Born to Run.” And it isn’t “Thunder Road,” where with a little faith the two lanes could take us anywhere. No, what we’re traveling here is what Springsteen calls “the skull highway.” On the first cut, we’re in a field of “blood and stone;” on the last, an earth “open to its bones.” They are the same. We’ve gone nowhere. We’ve gone inside.
The valley Springsteen enters on Devils & Dust, is a lonesome one, and he mostly walks it by himself. There’s help from producer Brendan O’Brien’s swirling string arrangements, Steve Jordan’s rhythm tracks that give pulse to the melodies, and some backup singing. But matching sound to subject matter, the CD is full of empty space. The individuals here are dwarfed by a landscape of “endless nothing.” They have the gaunt, isolated feel of the figures of the 20th century artist, Alberto Giacometti, and for similar reasons. “Wanting to create from memory what I had seen,” Giacometti wrote, “to my terror, the sculptures became smaller and smaller often so small that with one touch of my knife they disappeared into dust.” There’s some of the same terror in these songs of Springsteen. In trying to get down to the bones of what’s real, he’s employed a kind of musical minimalism. No easy answers; no E Street Band; no rock&roll climax.
If that makes the new CD sound despairing, it isn’t. There’s an understated courage to most of the material: living with sadness is part of the job description. But it is murky. The issues Devils & Dust, raises may be easier to get a handle on if you frame them in more traditional terms, the way Bill Monroe and his brother Charlie did in 1936. In a shape-note hymn played as country gospel, the Monroe Brothers asked, “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?” In their case, it’s a rhetorical question: nothing is worth the exchange. On this earth, you are, by definition, “risking your soul for the things that decay.” And what you’re giving up is the possibility of eternal reward.
Springsteen agrees — at least about the decay part. The CD’s most graphic description of this is set in a whore’s hotel room in Reno. There, as a hooker goes down on her john, he remembers a time when love was real, when a woman’s smile offered “all I’d ever need.” A slide guitar needles at a bed of lush strings; a tambourine taps in the background. The sadness in the music isn’t just because the hooker’s pleasures will prove fleeting and meaningless, but because his past love did, too. “Somehow, all you ever need,” Springsteen mutters, “is never really quite enough.” He slurs the dark news as if he doesn’t want to admit it out loud.
But where the Monroe Brothers stood on the solid ground of their faith, Springsteen can’t. The songs here are about devils and dust, “shadows and doubt.” They don’t move from temptation to salvation. In fact, their narratives are designed not to reach resolution. Yes, Springsteen sings “Matamoros Banks” from the perspective of an immigrant trying to swim across the Rio Grande to a better life. But as the song opens, he’s already an eyeless corpse, drifting in the current. The dead man’s story is over, and the beautiful, not quite resigned melody echoes that. There’s no plot, no meeting across the river, only the faint remains of hope. The same is true of “Silver Palomino,” where a child falls in love with a wild horse, but never gets to ride or even touch it. The most that happens is the child sees it, from a distance. Out of the guttural of Springsteen’s vocal flashes the vision of the pale horse, her coat “frosted diamonds.” If Springsteen’s rock&roll is often cinematic, building to a climax, these songs are photographs, capturing a moment, a mood..
Songs, then, without traditional narratives. But if you listen to Devils & Dust as a collection of character studies, you’ll be disappointed. It’s true that Springsteen turns each song into a kind of portrait by delivering some of the most varied and extreme vocals of his career. He sings the compulsive “All I’m Thinkin’ About” in a high falsetto like the bluesman Skip James. There are Southwestern accents, the title song is gravelly with fear, “Long Time Comin'” is delivered in a cowboy shout, and the inner-city kid on “Black Cowboys” speaks in an unaccented baritone. Yet, the end result is a CD which plays as a single, seamless meditation. That’s because these characters are variations on a theme: lost souls connected by their search for — as Springsteen puts it on “Leah” — “the same proof.” Like Giacometti’s pencil-thin bronzes, or the floating body off Matamoras, they are the material that resists and reflects and dissolves into the darkness. And that darkness is Springsteen’s real focus.
Folks do connect on Devils & Dust, mostly on the up-tempo numbers. “Long Time Comin'” offers its narrator the chance to “bury [his] old soul,” start a new family, and “not fuck it up this time.” It’s the exception that proves the rule: the CD’s rock&roll song with a narrative and a real chance at earthly salvation. More often, the emphasis is on the fuck-ups. “All I’m Thinkin'” may be sung by a man who believes he’s in love, but it rocks with the compulsive intensity of someone caught in a trap. On “All the Way Home,” the guy delivers his come-on in the nasal voice of a loser, and the electronic beat pumps him full of false courage: a variation on Springsteen’s earlier “Dancing in the Dark.” Throughout Devils & Dust, finding another person is a possibility and a blessing, but it’s no answer. Chanting, pulling up deep organ chords, Springsteen’s traveler falls into the roses of “Maria’s Bed” after forty days and nights in the wilderness. Love is real enough, but it’s a temporary shelter, a resting place where the soul can gather strength before doing more time.
Given that Devils & Dust was released not long after the singer’s endorsement of John Kerry, it’s tempting to hear the CD as a response to that loss, or to the present political climate. But only a few of these “new” songs are recent. Many, we’re told, date back a decade to when Springsteen was touring behind Joad. Some are even older. Though they’re appearing in 2005, they aren’t tied to a particular time or politics the way Born in the USA grew out of the Reagan years, or Springsteen’s last, The Rising, responded to 9/11. Even on the title cut — where a man with a gun waits in what might or might not be Iraq — Springsteen doesn’t use the situation for political purposes but to meditate on fear and what it does to our “God-filled soul.” On the Joad CD, the highway was “alive;” when immigrants came across the border, there was a chance they might make it; and we were being asked, in the 1930’s documentary tradition, to make moral choices to stand with those struggling to be free. On Devils & Dust, there’s no such call. Springsteen’s got on his “dead man’s suit,” his “graveyard boots.” From the memento mori skulls on the CD’s cover to the big black curtain he sees coming across the fields, Springsteen’s focused not so much on death as on the closing down of possibilities, the absence of faith.
Springsteen’s music has always been fueled from a dark vein. Starting with his first and still most famous locale, Asbury Park, the singer established a vocabulary of ruined arcades and small town losers. Asbury was a death trap, the town he was born to run from, and rock&roll the way out. But even as he escaped, Springsteen saw how unlikely that was for others. Since at least Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), Springsteen has been going back for those left behind, scraping away at the romanticism of the American Dream. His audience has rallied around both the promise in his music and its stubborn refusal to accept half-truths. The dead-end return of Vietnam vets became the uniting anthem of “Born in the USA.” He created an international hit out of an AIDS victim’s lonely walk through “The Streets of Philadelphia.” From the killers of Nebraska to the fire fighters of The Rising, Springsteen has repeatedly gone to where we hurt in order to get at what we have in common.
Devils & Dust takes the same route, examining and rejecting the comfort of easy answers, but it refuses to transcend. When Springsteen retells the Christ story, he pares away the dogma, and what’s left — over a gentle, keyboard-driven, gospel riff is a country ballad about mother love. The question of resurrection is no more important to “Jesus Was an Only Son” than the biblical record that Christ had siblings. What Springsteen zeroes in on is the nearly inexpressible hurt of a mother losing her son: “a loss that can never be replaced.” In the end, Jesus asks his mother to remember the soul of the universe, but he never suggests it’s a forgiving soul or one without pain. To the contrary, the song’s built both melodically and lyrically — to get to the hurt and then hang there.
Without narrative or character development, without the release of rock&roll or its humor, without the social relevance that supported The Rising, Springsteen has deliberately constructed Devils & Dust as a bare stage. Like the narrator of “The Hitter,” he places himself outside a locked door, alone, trying to describe where his life has taken him. If he can only get it right make his voice as battered as the way he feels maybe the door will open, and he can rest a while. Structured like an old mountain ballad, “The Hitter” refuses to ornament or build, repeating, instead, like the string of bloody fights it describes. It doesn’t end with the door opening but with the fighter circling yet another opponent. What he does to survive (like the gunner in the title track, like most of the people on the CD) may well kill the things he loves and his ability to love. But what he’s gained in this exchange is a stark beauty. Finally, he’s fighting to tell the truth.
And the truth is, he can’t. “It’s impossible,” as Giacometti once put it, “to paint a portrait.” The artist’s solution was to leave his work incomplete: faces emerging from half-erased lines, figures whittled to their essentials. That way, he hoped the struggle, at least, would show: fresh and unprettified. Springsteen leaves his vocals rough, his melodies unadorned, and his lyrics suggesting what can’t be said. The result is a gorgeous, uncompromising CD. If its central mystery and hurt remain impregnable, the fierceness of Springsteen’s pursuit grows more beautiful with every listen. In the end, that’s what Devils & Dust testifies to: that pursuit. “The content of any work,” critic John Berger wrote of Giacometti, “is not the nature of the figure or head portrayed but the incomplete history of his staring at it.”
DANIEL WOLFF is a poet and author of the excellent biography of the great Sam Cooke, You Send Me, as well as the recent collection of Ernest Withers’ photographs The Memphis Blues Again. Wolff’s Grammy-nominated essay on Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers is one of the highlights of CounterPunch’s collection on art, music and sex: Serpents in the Garden. Most recently, Wolff wrote the text for the collection of Ernest Wither’s photographs in Negro League Baseball. His next book, 4th of July/Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land (Bloomsbury USA), will be coming out this summer. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org