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Lonesome daze - Springsteen once again plugs into the country's spiritual decay

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Bruce Springsteen's career has stretched on for so long, even his unpredictably bleak, band-less records have acquired a predictable pattern. Every time he comes off a big-rocking commercial triumph, he feels compelled to unplug his guitar and plug himself into the country's spiritual decay. Critics with little taste for the E Street Band's bar-band muscularity tend to view these dour troubadour detours as his greatest work.

This argument can best be made for Nebraska, Springsteen's 1982 four-track Molotov cocktail. With Nebraska, Springsteen tapped into his own frightening sense of alienation and applied it to a nation reeling from the Reagan recession. By comparison, 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad felt more like well-intentioned journalism than art. The pure craziness of Nebraska was replaced with the white-liberal guilt of a well-adjusted family man, with predictably bland results.

Devils & Dust explores highly familiar Springsteen terrain. The protagonist of the title song sings: "I'm just trying to survive/what if what you do to survive/kills the things you love." It's a concept he's been pondering since 1976's "The Promise." Back then, he sounded every bit the Jersey street kid, but that persona long ago gave way to an oddly affected Appalachian twang which dominates much of Devils & Dust. As with Nebraska and Tom Joad, he also falls back on simple, repetitive melodies, presumably because melodic inspiration conveys too much cheerfulness.

Devils & Dust         Bruce Springsteen         (Columbia)

For everything he's lost along the way, however, Springsteen unquestionably has become a more precise storyteller. One of the album's few upbeat tracks "All The Way Home," shows how much empathy and humor he can convey with the sparest language: "It's the same old Stones' song the band is trashin/but if you feel like dancing/baby I'm askin." The remorseful "Reno" spares nothing in its depressing depiction of a tryst with a hooker: "'Two hundred dollars straight in/Two-fifty up the ass,' she smiled and said."

On this album, Springsteen also acknowledges the changes his own life has wrought. On Nebraska, he obsessed about the way his father had screwed him up. Here, with "Long Time Coming," he hopes that he doesn't screw up his own kids. It's not quite optimistic, but it does qualify as life-affirming.

Gilbert Garcia


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