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Working-men blues
Sweating to the oldies with Bruce Springsteen and Trent Reznor

Will the real Bruce Springsteen please stand up? Iíve been trying to find him somewhere in Devils & Dust (Columbia), his new semi-acoustic DualDisc collection of a dozen new songs and a short-film video in which he plays five of those tunes with only acoustic accompaniment. It hasnít been easy. Is he the righteous haunted soul who contemplates suicide on the discís title track? Or the broken man who makes an earnest pass at a divorcee in "All the Way Home"? Is he the faithful lover with the fragile falsetto driving "a barbed-wire highway" on a long trip home to his sweet woman in "Mariaís Bed"? Or the deep-voiced shady character detailing an encounter with a prostitute and earning the Boss his first parental-advisory sticker in "Reno"? Thereís also the hard-riding dude in "Long Time Cominí " flying down some moonlit highway with a "catch of roses" for his old girl Rosie, only this Rosieís "crackliní like crossed wires" and this time heís gonna get it right because if he "had one wish in this god forsaken world, kids, itíd be that your mistakes would be your own." And thereís the old, broken-down boxer who drops names (Jack Thompson, John McDowell) like broken teeth in "The Hitter," and the doomed Mexican border crosser who seems to know the geography of the American Southwest like the back of his hand in "Matamoros Banks."

Three decades after he was christened "rock and roll future" by Jon Landau, whoíd just seen some kid from New Jersey play a tiny Cambridge club, in the pages of a paper quite like this one, Springsteen is sounding more and more like some distant, mythic past. Thatís no dis. The first George Bush didnít even know how supermarket scanners worked, much less what a working man pays for a gallon of milk. His son fakes it better than most. But Springsteenís a different breed altogether. Heís sold millions of albums, played huge arenas worldwide, and made more than a comfortable living in the process. The bubble he lives in canít be easy to penetrate, and itís not as if he could walk into any old Stop and Shop for a gallon of milk without threatening to start a riot. And yet, as heís aged, heís taken on the trappings of the mythic American troubadour ó the scruffy, rootless singer-songwriter who travels from town to town, taking odd jobs where he can get them, making friends where he can find them, collecting stories and turning the fabric of a humble work day into poetry about the human condition. Every song on Devils & Dust sounds lived in. And he fleshes out the characters who populate those songs with real-life details that you donít trip across on your way to a stadium stage or in the corridor of a million-dollar mansion ó the blueberry wine the migrant farmworker sips in the back of a flatbed Ford in "All Iím Thinkiní About," the rates ("two hundred dollars straight in, two-fifty up the ass") the call girl in "Reno" quotes, the smell of mesquite in the air in "Long Time Cominí."

If Springsteenís to be trusted ó and there may be no more trustworthy troubadour in rock today ó he goes out on his bike and rides the same streets and highways he imagines his characters do. And like a writer bent on not just getting the story but capturing the accents and the moods, the sounds and the smells of his subjects, he has a talent for taking it all in. Given his rock-star status, thatís a minor miracle. That heís then able on an album like Devils & Dust ó my favorite since Nebraska ó to craft coherent character sketches that weave his own passions into epic little stories that convey the dryness of the desert, the feel of a finger on a trigger, the longing for the comfort of a loverís arms ó the very stuff of life ó is what will always set him apart from his peers. If he still has any.

Iím still looking for he real Bruce Springsteen on Devils & Dust, and I canít find him in any one song. But there have always been at least two Springsteens: the pumped-up guy in tight denim jeans dancing clumsily in the Technicolor dark to the overly anthemic crescendi of the E-Street Band on MTV, and the understated author of Nebraska singing stark and ragged songs about the cracks and fissures in an eroding American dream. To that you could add a third in the eager young rocker Landau encountered, but Iím not old enough to remember him. And there will always be the "Born in the U.S.A." Boss misappropriated by Reagan as some jingoistic yahoo after heíd written what may be the most misunderstood hit song of all time. Springsteen wasnít blameless for that little mix-up: as he belatedly realized, when people rally round a chorus as bombastic as "Born in the U.S.A.," they often miss the subtleties of the verses.

An album like Devils & Dust ó with its spare musical backdrops courtesy of drummer Steve Jordan and producer/bassist Brendan OíBrien, a little pedal steel here, a little trumpet there ó is built to diffuse the blind patriotic pride "Born in the U.S.A." evoked. Itís less self-consciously literary than 1995ís The Ghost of Tom Joad (Columbia), and catchier, too. But donít let its soft acoustic façade or a bright, sing-along chorus like "All Iím thinkiní about is you, baby" fool you: Devils & Dust has teeth and soul and suffering and beauty and joy and desire. Springsteen feels your pain ó or rather, the pain of a full spectrum of people heís never met but somehow seems to know. And he deals with themes so universal, you donít have to identify with every character to get the point. Itís Springsteen who does the identifying. He loses himself in his characters, creating the illusion, if only for a minute or two, that heís that guy sipping blueberry wine.

The spell is broken on the B-side of Devils & Dust, in the five-song DVD mini documentary that places our hero on a set fabricated to look like some anonymous abandoned home that could be right down the street from where you live. "Youíre supposed to disappear into the voice of the person youíre singing about," Springsteen explains before taking a seat in the corner of a room and picking at the strings of a beat-up acoustic guitar with only the tap of his boot and the occasional harmonica solo to keep him company. Here heís just a guy with a gift, another strummer with a song to sing. And thatís good enough for me, because in the end, the only Springsteen that matters is the one you hear on Devils & Dust.

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Issue Date: May 13 - 19, 2005
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