Published on December 19th, 2014 | by Andy Sedlak
‘Devils & Dust’ – Bruce Springsteen 
Summary: Springsteen turns inward to give us 12 character studies about people who range from bored to desperate to aging. The devils – no pun intended – are in the details. And Springsteen spins a magnificent yarn.
Released: April 26, 2005 | Length: 50:55
Producer: Brendan O’Brien
Top 40 U.S. singles: 0
Peak Position on Billboard Album Chart: 1
I was a junior at Circleville High School when Devils & Dust was released. I woke up early and hurried down to Wal-Mart – the closest “record store” – to buy the album before the drudgery of the school day began. The CD hadn’t been stocked on store shelves yet, so I helped employees open one unassuming brown box after another. I think we opened three before we found one full of newly-shipped discs of Devils & Dust.
In the end, I was late for school. Not because I had to go out of my way to get to Wal-Mart, but because I was preoccupied with the lyric booklet.
Time got away from me. I didn’t mind.
I always appreciated Devils & Dust because Bruce Springsteen didn’t have to release it at the time he did. The album – a stark collection of character sketches set mostly in the Southwest – followed the massive success of The Rising, released three years earlier. The Rising, a topical album about life in America after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was released to much acclaim in 2002 and will likely be remembered as pop culture’s definitive take on post-9/11 life. No small order from an artistic – or historical – standpoint.
But nobody kills the goose that lays the golden egg like Springsteen. The philosophy has always been that you don’t follow up a smash with another smash. You, instead, put your artistry out front. You do it while you still have the people’s attention.
Springsteen talks about the record during a Today show interview.
Devils & Dust is shadowy and pensive. It’s focused on character studies. While The Rising captured a nation trying to heal, Devils & Dust was centered on characters trying to live with well-established failures. As the listener, you become the proverbial fly on the wall as each scorned personality slowly steps from the shadows.
And perhaps no one is more scorned that the conflicted and confused solider in the title track.
From “Devils & Dust:”
Fear’s a dangerous thing
It can turn your heart black you can trust
It’ll take your God filled soul
Fill it with devils and dust
Written shortly after the United States put boots on the ground in Iraq, the song brings forth a soldier cross-examining himself while on the cusp of a decision that could reverberate for years. “It’s the personal and the political crashing together,” Springsteen later explained.
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love?
I’ve never served in the armed forces. But from what I understand, the field of battle is not one that is short on tragic scenarios. This surely seems like one of them.
The music video for “Devils & Dust,” the album’s lone single.
“Devils & Dust” was the only single released from the album. Even though Springsteen experienced a renewed wave of popular success a few years earlier, “Devils & Dust” peaked at Number 72 on the Hot 100. And, frankly, I’m surprised it charted that well. It doesn’t sound like a “single.” Chalk it up to being a song of the moment. Perhaps that is the most treasured prize of all.
Devils & Dust performed reasonably well commercially. It debuted at Number One on the Billboard Album Chart. Although it quickly fell off, it was certified gold.
But tunes like these were never meant to burn up the pop charts. Their release is purely the objective.
After the title track comes the self-deprecating townie in “All the Way Home.” The only thing more apparent than his lack of confidence is his desire to make good in spite of it.
From “All the Way Home:”
Now you got no reason to trust me
My confidence is a little rusty
But if you don’t feel like being alone
Baby, I could walk you all the way home
“Reno” is the story of a man hiring a prostitute as another futile attempt to distract himself from his tribulations. The song contained explicit imagery – enough to slap a warning label on the album. But the sex depicted in “Reno” isn’t the kind of imagery peddled by knucklehead sitcom writers. It’s the saddest, most desperate sexual encounter you’re likely to imagine.
She brought me another whiskey
Said, “Here’s to the best you’ve ever had”
We laughed and made a toast
It wasn’t the best I ever had
Not even close
“Long Time Comin’” gives us a father who’s determined not to “fuck it up” with another child on the way. “Black Cowboys” tells the story of a boy who comes to find he can no longer depend on his mother and ventures out on his own. The arc of the song is quite amazing. “Cinematic” has become such a cliché when describing Springsteen songs, but the term probably applies more than any other. Plainly stated, it’s a gorgeous song. Much credit goes to producer Brendan O’Brien for sweetening Springsteen’s wordy narrative and bringing forth its splendor.
O’Brien is a funny guy. The former bass player for the Georgia Satellites has produced everyone from Pearl Jam to the Offspring to Train. I always thought his production work with Springsteen most closely resembled his work with train. He gave both acts a broad, can’t-go-wrong sound. Except on Devils & Dust he leans back. And that’s fitting.
“Maria’s Bed” follows a man working hard labor. The main character has been “burned by the angels,” as Springsteen puts it. The only thing saving him from becoming lost in his grueling work is the ongoing fantasy of the time he spends with Maria. Is Maria a wife? A girlfriend? A mistress? We don’t know. The only thing we can say for certain is that our narrator would be lost without her touch.
“Silver Palomino” lags the most. “Jesus was an Only Son” tells the story of Jesus dying on the cross from Mary’s point of view. That is to say, it’s a song about mothers and sons.
“Jesus was an Only Son,” played live, sparsely on Vh1’s Storytellers.
“Leah” is about a transition into domesticated life. But in order to make that transition, the narrator must first make himself vulnerable. The struggle to do so and that sustained stress crystallize the twin issues that run throughout “Leah.”
I wanna live in the same house, beneath the same roof
Sleep in the same bed, search for the same proof
“The Hitter” is about a boxer whose glory days have long passed him by. He goes home to the one person he probably should be able to count on, but can’t. His request is simple, though somehow it isn’t. And the song ends with a gloomy foreshadow that ends abruptly.
“All I’m Thinkin’ About” provides light. The strummy acoustic ditty finds Springsteen singing in a higher register, one that he’d test out from time to time in the 90s without much fanfare. But on Devils & Dust? Screw it. If the man wants to sing in a falsetto, this was the time to do it. And he did.
The record ends with “Matamoros Banks,” among the least impactful tracks on the album. Still, there’s much to dissect. The song follows an immigrant who tries to cross over into the United States, only Springsteen traces his steps backwards. The song opens with him dead – turtles are nibbling on his eyelids – having not made it. Then it’s slowly revealed why he wanted to cross over so badly.
And what’s the answer to that question? Just look around you. That’s why he wants to be here.
Springsteen had recorded acoustic albums prior to 2005, but never with the balance displayed on Devils & Dust. His first, Nebraska, was an 80s record that sounded hauntingly in line with recordings out of the Dust Bowl era. His second, The Ghost of Tom Joad, was more a journalistic endeavor than anything else. Devils & Dust split the difference.
Springsteen plays “Devils & Dust” for a mostly vapid crowd at the 2006 Grammys.
But more than anything, Devils & Dust inspired the writer in me. In 2006, Springsteen performed the title song at the Grammys. He followed one overblown act after another. He took the stage with only a guitar and harmonica and played his ass off in front of Kanye West. And Mariah Carey. And Kelly Clarkson. And Faith Hill.
At the end of his fiery acoustic performance he shouted, “Bring ‘em home!” He then left the stage without acknowledging the standing ovation he’d just received.
I was 17 years old and watching from a floral couch in my living room. Inspired, I soon picked up my own guitar and started writing. A few months later I finished a song I would play at a talent show held at our high school on the last day of school. It was just about the last thing I did before I graduated. The song was called “Words of a Passing Man” and to this day I regard it as my greatest accomplishment.
When a piece of music inspires you like that, what’s not to love?