The call in Bruce Springsteen's Devils & Dust isn't for his fans to meet him in a dream but to contemplate why those dreams slip further and further out of reach. Danny Alexander reports.


Devils & Dust (Columbia) may be Bruce Springsteen's most difficult album to embrace both for its ephemera Americana sound and the messiness of its ideas. The call this time isn't for his fans to meet him in a dream but to contemplate why those dreams slip further and further out of reach. As Chris Papaleonardos wrote of the album, the key to our dreams is love, but bound up with our capacity for love are the fears which threaten it.

On an album that repeatedly returns to the theme of a mother's love for her children, crucial to understanding this threat is the mother in "Black Cowboys." Like the mother in Bruce's "41 Shots," she can't protect her child from the outside world and this mother winds up being the one who endangers him. Love itself is a difficult truth to hold onto on an album where marriages fail and lovers, mothers and their children are repeatedly separated by death. The fears and tragedies that linger threaten our very soul.

At no point in Springsteen's career
has the storm seemed more menacing,
but it's also never felt more necessary
because there's no other route to
get to the promised land. Without it,
we are destined always to be
at the mercy of devils and dust
...

The only apparent reason for hope is implicit in Springsteen's insistence on identifying these perils. But the solo acoustic show I saw in Denver went a step further: including "The Real World" and "Part Man, Part Monkey" which is Springsteen's way of insisting that acknowledging the danger is essential to getting a grip on reality.

The sequence of "Reno," "The Promise" and "My Hometown" made it clear that the magnitude of the task extends from the most intimate revelations to the state of the economy. Playing "The Rising" after this sounded like Martin Luther King Jr's call at the 1967 SCLC conference for America to be "born again" - asking us to individually and collectively redefine life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

 

The encores spelled out the rest. Johnny 99's declaration, "It was more than all this, judge, that put that gun in my hand," pointed up just what kind of understanding our songs can call for even in our increasingly unforgiving society. A crowd singalong on "Waiting on a Sunny Day" showed that amidst all this pain we still can dream together.

But this was followed by "My Best Was Never Good Enough," which made it equally plain that seeking the solutions in cliches won't cut it. The haunting percussive version of "The Promised Land" ended the show with Springsteen's vision of a twister that blows away illusions and clears the way for real answers. In that moment, the space in the theater collapsed and everybody faced that tough truth with what felt like eye-to-eye intimacy, even from my spot at the back of the auditorium.

At no point in Springsteen's career has the storm seemed more menacing, but it's also never felt more necessary because there's no other route to get to the promised land. Without it, we are destined always to be at the mercy of devils and dust and that's no mercy at all. - Rock & Rap Confidential




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