The moment I finally reached adulthood didn’t occur when I graduated college or signed the lease on my first apartment. It happened when I realized that I liked Bruce Springsteen more than my mother did. Throughout my adolescence, Bruce had been one of those mom-rock artists I rolled my eyes at, the embodiment of the establishment that the punk bands I listened to railed against. But sometime in the fall of 2003, after Mom took me to a Springsteen concert in Philadelphia, I suddenly found myself craving nothing but Bruce. His metaphors of roads and rivers and darkness seemed to hold the answers to the Important Life Questions I faced stepping out into the post-college void; his gruff voice and big, comfy riffs (particularly on my favorite record, 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town) were fatherly shoulders to lean on. Bruce made me feel part of something larger than my puny existence. When he sang about believing in a promised land, I felt like I understood—we’re all pieces of this common dream called America, which holds the possibility of great things, if only we could get our shit together.
I was in for a major letdown. First came last autumn’s Vote for Change tour, the Springsteen-led charge against George W. Bush’s re-election. As I stood next to Mom in Philly’s Wachovia Center, pumping my fist to “No Surrender” along with all the other upper- and middle-class white liberals, my body tingled with optimism. We were going to change the world! Didn’t happen.
Now we have Devils & Dust, another disappointment. It’s long and boring and preachy. It’s quintessential mom rock. Every track follows one of two blueprints: the doomsaying acoustic dirges perfected on 1982’s Nebraska and refracted on 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, or the stadium sing-alongs typified by “Born to Run,” “Badlands,” and most of 2002’s The Rising. The sequence alternates slow song with fast song, over and over. There’s nothing wrong with these formulas in and of themselves, as Springsteen has proven time and again. Some folks complain that he has been treading water ever since 1987’s Tunnel of Love. I tend to disagree (give or take most of 1992’s dismal two-fer Human Touch and Lucky Town.) Tom Joad sounds genuinely haunted, and The Rising‘s rock-the-pain-away catharsis works precisely because it’s so calculated. But on Devils & Dust, he sounds like Bruce in Bruce-face. “Fear’s a powerful thing/It’ll turn your heart black you can trust/It’ll take your God-filled soul/Fill it with devils and dust,” he warns on the title track, as producer Brendan O’Brien deploys a swelling undercurrent played by someone or something called “Nashville String Machine.” (This same effect is maddeningly used to evoke bubbling menace on all the other slow songs, not to mention a few of the fast ones.) “Blind man wavin’ by the side of the road/I’m in a flatbed Ford carrying a heavy load,” he sings in a strained falsetto on “All I’m Thinkin’ About,” and I can’t help but think: Is there an Internet Bruce Springsteen Song Generator that he’s been using?
Thanks to the magic of DualDisc technology, Devils & Dust comes with a short film of Springsteen performing five songs solo in a run-down old house at twilight. These versions thankfully get rid of the Nashville String Machine, but they also further expose the tunes’ weaknesses. I’d sell my prized Tracks box set to see “Atlantic City” or “The River” performed in such an intimate setting, but songs like “Devils & Dust” and “Matamoros Banks” just lie there stagnating like bloated corpses in a swamp. One track benefits: “Reno,” the tale of a lonely man’s sexual encounter with a prostitute, so rich with detail that Springsteen might consider a second career as a pornographer: “She took off her bra and panties, wet her finger, slipped it inside her, and crawled over me on the bed.” (These being puritan times, “Reno” is listed on the back cover as containing “some adult imagery.” Oddly, “Long Time Comin’,” which includes the F–word, escapes this distinction.)
I know that I invested too much in Bruce Springsteen, and I’m not the only one. Like adulthood and America itself, Springsteen can’t possibly live up to our expectations. But I keep on believing in that promised land anyway.