Every decade or so, Bruce Springsteen toys with a return to the heartland, to the isolated, icy bleakness of Nebraska. He strips down to just a guitar, his raspy voice, and stark songs that intimately identify with both the crooked cop and the cop killer. Although 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad featured a band at times, the focus was on immigrants and illegals under overpasses, at work in San Joaquin's orchards, or shrimping in Galveston Bay. Where was Jersey?
From the looks of the sepia-drenched, sandblasted photograph of the Boss with his scowl and his soul patch, it appears that Devils & Dust marks itself as the return of the drifter. For the first minute and a half of the title track, it's just Bruce on the barren landscape. That is, until producer Brendan O'Brien (who produced that bulky yet shiny thud on Pearl Jam's, Rage Against the Machine's, and Soundgarden's discs in the mid-Nineties) blows in on a dusty gust of strings. Horns appear and detonating toms underscore lines such as "Fear's a powerful thing/It'll turn your heart black ... /It'll take your God-filled soul/Fill it with devils and dust."
The Boss's dismay on November 3, the morning after the presidential election (he plugged in and stumped hard for John Kerry) is palpable when he grumbles about security in the homeland. But he freely admits on "All the Way Home": "I know what it's like to have failed, baby, with the whole world lookin' on." And just like that he slips off to a serene landscape as Southern as Tom Joad's but more akin to John Sayles's Lone Star border towns (where Dubya country ends).
Arguably Springsteen has always sounded best on the open road, born to run in the U.S.A. in pink Cadillacs, but Devils & Dust is encrusted in rustic Americana. He sleeps on palettes under the stars. He exaggerates his drawl to tell us about riding bareback on "Silver Palomino," perhaps to stay on par with the maudlin humidity of the Nashville String Machine accompanying. On the lubricious and leering "Maria's Bed," hurdy-gurdies, tamboras, and Soozy Tyrell's violin entangle and sweat as Springsteen bellows about "candy stick kisses 'neath a wolf dog moon." Gone are the rave-up rock operas as belted by the Fonz, the blue-collar Rambo of the Reagan Eighties, but his scuffed, stylized romanticism shines through the dust. Bruce has gone country, or at the very least, Cormac McCarthy.