“Now down below and pullin’ on my shirt
I got some kids of my own
Well if I had one wish in this god forsaken world, kids
It’d be that your mistakes would be your own” Long Time Comin’
Let’s kick this one off with a small clarification – Devils & Dust (as with each that follows in this series) is a fine album. As strong a collection of songs as many could muster. From here on in (now that High Hopes is behind us) we’re really just talking personal preferences.
The outlier in Bruce’s ‘acoustic trio’, the songs on Devils & Dust aren’t as sparsely accompanied as they are on Ghost Of Tom Joad or Nebraska, nor are they as single-minded in their focus. Recorded after touring behind The Rising, this set was produced by Brendan O’Brien and mixes themes from politics to personal.
Many of the songs here go back to the Ghost Of Tom Joad tour – some even earlier -but the opening title track was new and is as fine a song as Bruce has ever written, a strong commentary on the Iraq war: “It is basically a song about a soldier’s point of view, but it kind of opens up to a lot of other interpretations.” The album and song were nominated for a few Grammy Awards (it won Best Solo Rock Vocal) and, performing the song during the broadcast he added a cry of “Bring ’em home” at the end before immediately turning and leaving the stage (missing his partial standing-ovation). It’s a great song.
There’s plenty of great tunes on Devils & Dust, even the older tunes revisited for the format work well and still stand (the mark of a good Springsteen song if you ask me) their ground. ‘All The Way Home‘ is particularly strong – written for and originally released by Southside Johnny in 1991 (on an album titled Better Days of all things) and is not even slightly acoustic, Bruce really steps into the lyric “I know what it’s like to have failed, baby with the whole world lookin’ on”.
One of my personal favourites on this one is ‘Long Time Comin” – a catchy, sins-of-the-father, redemption song that only suffers by it’s placing between ‘Reno’ and ‘Black Cowboys’:
Devils & Dust was the first Springsteen album to feature a Parental Advisory sticker and it wasn’t just for the ‘fuck it up this time’ in the ‘Long Time Comin’ either. It was most likely down to the album’s biggest talking point; ‘Reno’. To me, though, I find the song, like a couple of the others on here, just a bit ‘meh’. It seems like the minimal two-chord repetition and overly-heavy lyrics are too oppressive/dour and, in this instance, seem to be an awful lot of a build-up to hear Bruce sing about a man’s visit to a prostitute; “”Two hundred dollars straight in, two-fifty up the ass,” she smiled and said.” There’s nothing wrong with daring, there’s nothing wrong with those lyrics but it seems, to me at least, that the song isn’t really much to write home about in the first place and if it weren’t for those lines nobody would’ve really written about it all.
While there’s nothing wrong with a good ‘story’ song (‘Galveston Bay’ on Ghost of Tom Joad for example), there’s a few instances on Devils & Dust, like ‘The Hitter’ or ‘Jesus Was An Only Son’ where these near short-stories are too much for their minimal backdrops to retain attention. Take a look at the lyrics and you’ll see that some of these are blocks of paragraphs rather than verses and some (‘The Hitter’) are nine plus verses without a chorus. Don’t get me wrong; the lyrics aren’t bad at all (‘The Hitter’ is especially brutal) but it weighs the album down a touch more than the music and production can lift.
To me it’s not a good thing if a song can’t speak for itself. The inlay for Devils & Dust is filled with explanatory notes around many of these wordier tunes and, from what I’ve read, Bruce spent many a minute on stage during the solo tour for this one explaining the meaning / story behind a lot of the tracks – as can also be seen on the ‘Storytellers’ episode (and while that’s kinda the point it got a little frustrating as he’d almost pause during song to explain verse-by-verse).
That being said I reiterate that it’s a good album (again I’m sure there’s many who may say it’s their favourite) and contains some great tunes so I’ll drop the much-overlooked ‘Maria’s Bed’ here:
Highlights: Devils & Dust, All The Way Home, Long Time Comin’, Maria’s Bed, All I’m Thinkin About, Leah.
Lowlights: Reno, Black Cowboys, Jesus Was An Only Son.