It’s been a disheartening couple of decades for Springsteen fans. Well, for this fan anyway. The true diehards forever seeking redemption in the sweeping gesture–they shall not be moved, no sir. But tramps like me have been bummed to witness a good man’s struggle for significance at the expense of his art, his refusal to shrug off the prophet’s mantle and just rock out, and the toll that a star’s obligation to fan expectations mercilessly extracts. The hollow uplift of “The Rising” may have trumpeted his ultimate re-entry to the Promised Land, but like his post-80s highlights — the ambiguous brotherly love of “Streets of Philadelphia,” the PBA-defying empathy of “American Skin (41 Shots)” — “Devils and Dust” proved that SPringsteen had more to say about wandering in the wilderness.
Bruce doesn’t strip down to true Nebraska essentials for “Devils and Dust”; instead he fakes the folk a la Tunnel of Love, well with help from underrated collaborator Brendan O’Brien, whose ability to reconfigure the wall-rattling vibrancy of the E-Street Band was the best thing about The Rising. There’s real drama to this arrangement: the track builds to a harmonica solo that, for once, doesn’t merely signify “roots,” then the drums (session man Steve Jordan, fwiw, not Max Weinberg) kick in double-time without kicking out the jams. And if Bruce can’t shake that faux Okie Dylan impression, at least he uses it with some nuance here.
Lyrically, Springsteen’s often fatal knack for vagueness serves him well here, and he evokes the whirl of uncertainty that envelops his narrator with a quickly sketched scene of doubt in a desert war. Even “We’re a long long way from home, Bobby/ Home’s a long long way from us” is more than a glibly tweaked commonplace. His foxhole philosophizing has got heft, too, acknowledging the appeal of the “righteous stand” even while it undercuts reliance on faith. “Fear’s a powerful thing” is no great revelation; contextualized by a phrase like “what you do to survive kills the things you love” and contemporary American politics, though, it hits home. Eternally faithful that human reason and decency will overcome fearful superstition, Bruce suggests to Americans that they were more in doubt about their certainties than they suspected. I’d love to see him proven correct someday.