By Mark Guarino
Despite the fanfare associated with the E Street Band, it is easy to forget that Bruce Springsteen started his career as a singer-songwriter, molded after Bob Dylan and just as freewheeling. “Devils & Dust” (Columbia), his 13th album in stores today, is a return to those humbling days before he mastered how to wow stadium crowds with his trademark preacher fever.
Like his other reprisal periods — 1982’s “Nebraska,” 1987’s “Tunnel of Love,” 1995’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” — “Dust” puts aside band camaraderie for tight-knit songs oozing with literary ambition. Considering the fraternity indulgence of 2002’s “The Rising,” his epic-sized salve for post-911, “Dust” is less presumptuous. There is little heart thumping in these 12 narratives, as if Springsteen is stepping out of the way of the stories and hoping that, in their quiet turning of corners, the singer becomes transparent.
But unlike “Joad,” “Dust” does not rely purely on bone dry acoustics. The songs are presented in ensemble form, here with help from drummer Steve Jordan, fiddler player Soozie Tyrell, producer Brendan O’Brien on bass and Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa on vocals — a trimmed-down group more satisfying than the crowded E Street. Together they provide the brightest tunes of the bunch. The rubbery country rocker “All the Way Home” sounds unshackled from the drowning scope of past anthems and “Maria’s Bed,” with its fiddle and hurdy gurdy, sounds more suited for a front porch party than football stadium. On the breezy country blues of “All I’m Thinkin’ About,” Springsteen transforms his husky vocals into a crackled falsetto. It almost works; think Neil Young or Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country.”
Many of the songs here were written a decade ago as footnotes to “Joad,” while Springsteen set out on his first solo acoustic tour. They share a similar Southwest flavor and fine attention to detail. “Then the women and the money came fast/and the days I lost track/the women red, the money green, but the numbers were black,” Springsteen sings, as a soul-scarred boxer, in “The Hitter.”
Those characters — a Mexican immigrant scrambling across the border, a young boy escaping to the west, a man aching to relive a lost love through a prostitute — are cast against desolate backdrops and hang onto the most frail of melodies. They suffer from an overbearing sense of literary weight, cased in solemn synthesizers (when, oh when, will Springsteen give these up?) and sung in a haunting whisper. The stories never live up to the gravity of their impersonal and stately presentation. You wish Springsteen would rediscover the wild fire and raw quality that makes “Nebraska” so unnerving even today.
Like Dylan, Springsteen eventually had to face having to live up to the iconic persona he created. Casual fans pleading for “Hungry Heart” at his current solo acoustic tour will never be pleased with albums like “Devils & Dust.” Too bad for them. Despite its flaws, it provides a reminder that long before The Boss, he was a songwriter worth every grain of salt.