Sunday, April 26, 2015

Album Review: Devils & Dust

Today marks the ten-year anniversary of the release of Springsteen's 13th studio album Devils & Dust.  Usually, I start these reviews with my persona relationship I had with the album at the time it was released (such as my love of The Rising and my hatred of Working On A Dream).  However, this is an album that never quite left a mark on me in any direction.  I was out of the country when it was released, and subsequently never saw any of the shows on the Devils & Dust Tour.  Basically, before going into this album, I remember just having a generally positive attitude about this album.  And, after a couple of listens recently, that's about all I'm left with: a generally positive attitude.

Devils & Dust is a difficult album to review.  While it generally gets lumped in with other acoustic albums like Nebraska and Ghost of Tom Joad, there are much more instruments than the guitar integrating into these songs (when perhaps they shouldn't be).  In fact, many of these songs were old songs Springsteen had written that were cleaned up and recorded, making the album much more like High Hopes.

There are some good songs, but they never quite reach "great" status.  There are some bad songs, but nothing that can't pass as adequate filler.  It wouldn't be fair to call it "average", but it isn't a classic either.  In fact, I think the album is best summarized by it's title track above.  "Devils & Dust" is a protest strong that has held up fairly well over the years, with its evocative lyrics and stark atmosphere.  However after a strong opening minute, it gets bogged down by overproduction, adding in strings and piano.  It doesn't make the song unlistenable, mind you, but it holds it back from being an all-time Springsteen classic.

While the name Devils & Dust invokes a dark, somber attitude, the best songs on this album are actually Springsteen's love songs.  "Long Time Comin'" is one of the strongest songs on the album, both musically and lyrically.  Invoking the name Rosie again (instantly recalling the classic "Rosalita"), Springsteen weaves a great tale of failed relationships with the hope of working to make the future different from the past.  "Leah" is little love song that has always stuck with me.  While it is very similar to "Long Time Comin'" musically, the "li-li-li's" give it an classic 1960s pop feeling.  "All I'm Thinkin' About" completes this love song trilogy.  Here, Springsteen challenges himself, singing in complete falsetto.  It's a risk that pays off, as it makes the narrator sound breathless, overtaken with his love.

The rest of the songs have one or two things that help them stand out.  You've got "All The Way Home", the random hard rocker on the album that stands out like "Open All Night" on Nebraska.  You've got "Reno", the hooker song.  "Maria's Bed" is a twangy song, with "woos" similar to "State Trooper" and the smiling skull ring from "(Further On) Up The Road".  "Matamoros Banks" is another slow lullaby that ends the album, which seems to be Springsteen's specialty ("My City of Ruins", "Terry's Song", "Dream Baby Dream", etc.).

 The problem is that all of these songs are different thematically.  The album doesn't have the driving direction that helps the other Springsteen work stand out.  You've got anti-war songs, love songs, songs about boxers, songs about cars, etc.  The sound isn't acoustic, but you also don't have the E Street Band, either.  With all that being said, I'd rate the album a three out of five.  It's got a handful of songs that I'd love to see in concert (and a couple I think could be revamped with a full band, such as "Black Cowboys").  Many of the songs have great elements, but they don't quite stick the landing.  Much like this review, which I'm not sure how to end.

Please share your thoughts/stories about Devils & Dust in the comments below!

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