Friday, January 18, 2013

More Mediocrity From Bruce Springsteen: Devils & Dust

The Good: One truly great line, Vocals
The Bad: Musically limited, Most of the lyrics are not impressive, DVD side is nothing special
The Basics: For all of my love of Bruce Springsteen as a progressive political activist and lyrical artist, Devils & Dust is just a dud.

So when I picked up my first Bruce Springsteen album a few days ago, it fell exactly within what I would have expected as a person who has enjoyed his songs on the radio for the past twenty-five years. So, when I picked up the dual disc Devils & Dust, I figured that if The Rising (reviewed here!) was at worst an indistinct concept album with decent lyrics, the newer dual disc would be at least as good. Okay, I was wrong, it happens from time to time! Devils & Dust is packaged as a dual disc, as near as I can figure it, to dupe the listener into believing there is merit in the recording on the assumption that the listener will think, "It must be good, or else they wouldn't have released it as a dual disc!"

For those not yet familiar with the technology, a dual disc is a cd/DVD combo where one side of the disc is a standard compact disc and the flipside is a DVD, which can be played only in a DVD player. In the case of Devils & Dust, the DVD side has all twelve songs from the album with an introduction to each one, along with five acoustic tracks (“Devils & Dust,” "Reno," "Long Time Comin'," "All I'm Thinkin' About," and "Matamoros Banks."). The acoustic performances add nothing distinctive to the songs, as they are generally some of the softer tracks on the album anyway. The introductions are interesting for one pass-through but they aren't complicated or containing anything earthshattering that makes the listener want to put them on again. So, the DVD side is pretty much a wash. I write that as someone who has a pretty decent surround sound system and the songs truly sound no better on that than on my computer speakers.

The main reason for this is that Devils & Dust is a very musically limited album. The average track has Springsteen playing guitar, keyboards and singing, but everything is within a very safe, very mellow range. Devils & Dust is more quiet and folksy than the rock and roll of The Rising or most of Springsteen's radio-played tracks. The album has a generally quiet feel to it. Springsteen also plays drums on tracks like "All I'm Thinkin' About," but it's worth noting that that track has little in the way of noticeable drums. Even worse; the song is one of the most repetitive on the album. If you've heard Springsteen softly crooning "All I'm thinkin' about is you . . ." once, you've heard it twenty times. Actually, according to the lyrics in the liner notes, he repeats that one line twenty-five times. I suspect it is actually more, but I'm not counting to find out. I just don't care to hear that song even one more time.

When I write that Devils & Dust (the album) is musically limited, I am not just making a gripe about the soft, acoustic sound of the album. I like quieter rock albums, quite a lot, in fact. My problem here is that: 1. Most of the songs sound so much alike as to make them indistinguishable from one another and 2. Springsteen's "sound" shows no real growth from the time I first heard "Streets of Philadelphia" on the radio. The first complaint is usually enough to sink an album in my view. If you are a true musical artist and you have something to say, it seems like you should be talented enough to say what you have to say different enough across an album. Other artists are very good at this; Dar Williams sticks songs that sound alike on different albums, filmmaker Kevin Smith has been repackaging essentially the same story over again for the entirety of his career (something he openly admits on his commentary tracks).

Springsteen has been in the business for a long time, one would think he could make an album with tracks that are distinctive and different sounding. That he has not progressed much since "Streets Of Philadelphia" and "Secret Garden" in terms of musical development is disturbing and makes the prior problem one that is impossible to ignore on Devils & Dust. After all, it's bad enough the songs sound alike, it's worse that they sound like tracks that are almost a decade old.

Perhaps the answer is that at this point, Bruce Springsteen is just churning albums out. With twelve tracks and just under fifty-one minutes of music, Devils & Dust is an unremarkable album in almost every sense of the word. Springsteen's vocals are all safe and well within his range. There is not a single track that defy the expectations of what a listener expects to hear of Bruce Springsteen on this album. His vocals are safe, up front on all of the songs and they have the same smooth voice on every track.

It comes down to the lyrics to sell Devils & Dust and they're a flat-out dud. While The Rising had a homogenous theme, and a number of analogies that were effectively doing the same thing (comparing big world events to intimate personal moments), Springsteen managed to write well, presenting decent poems that were interesting and expressive.

On Devils & Dust, there was one distinctive line. On the whole album. Springsteen sings, ". . . I'm just trying to survive / What if what you do to survive / Kills the things you love / Fear's a powerful thing . . ." (“Devils & Dust”). That sentiment is brilliantly expressed, clever and well-written. It's the exception to the rule on the album and appears prominently on the first song on the disc.

The thing is, even the most original song on the album is just bad. Springsteen's song "Reno," is about a man who goes to a prostitute, is bored while having sex with her and allows his mind to wander. Springsteen gets the concept done right; the narrator is bored and drifting away and the song is has a somanmbulic tune. The problem is, almost all the lines have predictable rhymes. So the kicker line, which is supposed to be shocking or have an edge with, ". . . 'Here's to the best you ever had.' / We laughed and made a toast. / It wasn't the best I ever had, / Not even close" ("Reno"), instead comes across as flat and completely foreseeable.

Bruce Springsteen takes almost complete creative control on this album, writing, singing and playing instruments on all twelve songs. He even co-produced two of the tracks. So, it's hard to argue that this is not his distinctive musical vision. It's hard to argue it's not his vision, but, alas, the distinctive part falls way flat on Devils & Dust. None of the tracks are distinctive and the lyrics are flat along the album, regardless of the subject.

The best track is the opening song “Devils & Dust” and after six listens I still can't recall a single line or bar from "Maria's Bed," making it the least distinctive of an unremarkable album.

For other, former, Artist Of The Month selections, please check out my reviews of:
Bridge Over Troubled Water - Simon & Garfunkel
Covers – James Taylor
18 Singles - U2


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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