Category Archives: Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town

ON THIS DATE (34 YEARS AGO)
June 2, 1978 – Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town is released.
# ALL THINGS MUSIC PLUS+ 4.5/5
# Allmusic 4.5/5 stars
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
Darkness on the Edge of Town is the fourth album by Bruce Springsteen, released on this date in June 1978. The album marked the end of a three year period of forced hiatus from recording brought on by contractual obligations and legal battling with former manager Mike Appel. Although the album did not produce high charting singles it nevertheless remained on the charts for 97 weeks.
Recovering from legal troubles and the stress of the breakthrough success of Born to Run, Springsteen released a somewhat less commercial album, Darkness on the Edge of Town.
In terms of the original LP’s sequencing, Springsteen continued his “four corners” approach from Born to Run, as the songs beginning each side (“Badlands” and “The Promised Land”) were martial rallying cries to overcome circumstances, while the songs ending each side (“Racing in the Street”, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”) were sad dirges of circumstances overcoming all hope. Unlike Born to Run, the songs were recorded by the full band all at once, frequently soon after Springsteen had written them. Steven Van Zandt received a credit for production assistance for helping Springsteen tighten the arrangements from Born to Run’s epic sound.
This collection of songs, each of which Springsteen sang in the first person, was given unity by several recurring themes. The words “darkness” / “dark” appear in six of the tracks, while nine of them feature the “night” / “tonight”. “They” are mentioned in eight songs, with a general suggestion of nameless people who exert a negative influence. “Work” / “worked” / “working” form part of six songs, and so do the words “dream” / “dreams”. Six is also the number of songs in which Bruce and his characters are found “driving” / “racing” / “riding”, or mentioning the names of cars. There are references to “blood”, “born”, “love” / “loved” in four of the tracks. In the song “Racing in the Street,” Springsteen alludes to Martha & the Vandellas’ Dancing in the Street with the lyric “Summer’s here and the time is right for racing in the street,” which is similar to the Rolling Stones similar appropriation of the lyric in the song “Street Fightin’ Man”.
The album failed to generate any substantial hit singles, although “Prove It All Night” made into the Top 40 in the U.S. at #33, and follow-up “Badlands” just missed, peaking at #42.
At the time, Darkness claimed the number one slot on NME album of the year ranking. In 2003, the album was ranked number 151 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The same year, the TV network VH1 named Darkness on the Edge of Town the 68th greatest album of all time.
ORIGINAL ROLLING STONE REVIEW
Occasionally, a record appears that changes fundamentally the way we hear rock & roll, the way it’s recorded, the way it’s played. Such records — Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Who’s Next, The Band — force response, both from the musical community and the audience. To me, these are the records justifiably called classics, and I have no doubt that Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town will someday fit as naturally within that list as the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music.”
One ought to be wary of making such claims, but in this case, they’re justified at every level. In the area of production, Darkness on the Edge of Town is nothing less than a breakthrough. Springsteen — with coproducer Jon Landau, engineer Jimmy Iovine and Charles Plotkin, who helped Iovine mix the LP — is the first artist to fuse the spacious clarity of Los Angeles record making and the raw density of English productions. That’s the major reason why the result is so different from Born to Run’s Phil Spector wall of sound. On the earlier album, for instance, the individual instruments were deliberately obscured to create the sense of one huge instrument. Here, the same power is achieved more naturally. Most obviously, Max Weinberg’s drumming has enormous size, a heartbeat with the same kind of space it occupies onstage (the only other place I’ve heard a bass drum sound this big).
Now that it can be heard, the E Street Band is clearly one of the finest rock & roll groups ever assembled. Weinberg, bassist Garry Tallent and guitarist Steve Van Zandt are a perfect rhythm section, capable of both power and groove. Pianist Roy Bittan is as virtuosic as on Born to Run, and saxophonist Clarence Clemons, though he has fewer solos, evokes more than ever the spirit of King Curtis. But the revelation is organist Danny Federici, who barely appeared on the last L.P. Federici’s style is utterly singular, focusing on wailing, trebly chords that sing (and in the marvelous solo at the end of “Racing in the Street,” truly cry).
Yet the dominant instrumental focus of Darkness on the Edge of Town is Bruce Springsteen’s guitar. Like his songwriting and singing, Springsteen’s guitar playing gains much of its distinctiveness through pastiche. There are echoes of a dozen influences — Duane Eddy, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Roy Buchanan, even Ennio Morricone’s Sergio Leone soundtracks — but the synthesis is completely Springsteen’s own. Sometimes Springsteen quotes a famous solo — Robbie Robertson’s from the live version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” at the end of “Something in the Night,” Jeff Beck’s from “Heart Full of Soul” in the bridge of “Candy’s Room” — and then shatters it into another dimension. In the end the most impressive guitar work of all is just his own: “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Streets of Fire” are things no one’s ever heard before.
Much the same can be said about Springsteen’s singing. Certainly, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan are the inspirations for taking such extreme chances: bending and twisting syllables; making two key lines on “Streets of Fire” a wordless, throttled scream; the wailing and humming that precede and follow some of the record’s most important lyrics. But more than ever, Springsteen’s voice is personal, intimate and revealing, bigger and less elusive. It’s the possibility hinted at on Born to Run’s “Backstreets” and in the postverbal wail at the end of “Jungleland,” In fact, Springsteen picks up that moan at the beginning of “Something in the Night,” on which he turns in the new album’s most adventurous vocal.
One could say a great deal about the construction of this LP. The programming alone is impressive: each side is a discrete progression of similar lyrical and musical themes, and the whole is a more universal version of the same picture. Ideas, characters and phrases jump from song to song like threads in a tapestry, and everything’s one long interrelationship. But all of these elements — the production, the playing, even the programming — are designed to focus our attention on what Springsteen has to tell us about the last three years of his life.
In a way, this album might take as its text two lines from Jackson Browne: “Nothing survives — /But the way we live our lives.” But where Browne is content to know this, Springsteen explores it: Darkness on the Edge of Town is about the kind of life that deserves survival. Despite its title, it is a complete rejection of despair. Bruce Springsteen says this over and over again, more bluntly and clearly than anyone could have imagined. There isn’t a single song on this record in which his yearning for a perfect existence, a live lived to the hilt, doesn’t play a central role.
Springsteen also realizes the terrible price one pays for living at half-speed. In “Racing in the Street,” the album’s most beautiful ballad, Springsteen separates humanity into two classes: “Some guys they just give up living/And start dying little by little, piece by piece/Some guys come home from work and wash up/And go racin’ in the street.” But there’s nothing smug about it, because Springsteen knows that the line separating the living dead from the walking wounded is a fine and bitter one. In the song’s final verse, he describes with genuine love a person of the first sort, someone whose eyes “hate for just being born.” In “Factory,” he depicts the most numbing sort of life with a compassion that’s nearly religious. And in “Adam Raised a Cain,” the son who rejected his father’s world comes to understand their relationship as “the dark heart of a dream” — a dream become nightmarish, but a vision of something better nonetheless.
There are those who will say that “Adam Raised a Cain” is full of hate, but I don’t believe it. The only hate I hear on this LP is embodied in a single song, “Streets of Fire,” where Springsteen describes how it feels to be trapped by lies. And even here, he has the maturity to hate the lie, not the liar.
Throughout the new album, Springsteen’s lyrics are a departure from his early work, almost its opposite, in fact: dense and compact, not scattershot. And if the scenes are the same — the highways, bars, cars and toil — they also represent facets of life that rock & roll has too often ignored or, what’s worse, romanticized. Darkness on the Edge of Town faces everyday life whole, daring to see if something greater can be made of it. This is naive perhaps, but also courageous. Who else but a brave innocent could believe so boldly in a promised land, or write a song that not only quotes Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” but paraphrases the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby”?
Bruce Springsteen has a tendency to inspire messianic regard in his fans — including this one. This isn’t so much because he’s regarded as a savior — though his influence has already been substantial — but because he fulfills the rock tradition in so many ways. Like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, Springsteen has the ability, and the zeal, to do it all. For many years, rock & roll has been splintered between the West Coast’s monopoly on the genre’s lyrical and pastoral characteristics and a British and Middle American stranglehold on toughness and raw power. Springsteen unites these aspects: he’s the only artist I can think of who’s simultaneously comparable to Jackson Browne and Pete Townshend. Just as the production of this record unifies certain technical trends, Springsteen’s presentation makes rock itself whole again. This is true musically — he rocks as hard as a punk, but with the verbal grace of a singer/songwriter — and especially emotionally. If these songs are about experienced adulthood, they sacrifice none of rock & roll’s adolescent innocence. Springsteen escapes the narrow dogmatism of both Old Wave and New, and the music’s possibilities are once again limitless.
Four years ago, in a Cambridge bar, my friend Jon Landau and I watched Bruce Springsteen give a performance that changed some lives — my own included. About a similar night, Landau later wrote what was to become rock criticism’s most famous sentence: “I saw rock & roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” With its usual cynicism, the world chose to think of this as a fanciful way of calling Springsteen the Next Big Thing.
I’ve never taken it that way. To me, these words, shamefully mistreated as they’ve been, have kept a different shape. What they’ve always said was that someday Bruce Springsteen would make rock & roll that would shake men’s souls and make them question the direction of their lives. That would do, in short, all the marvelous things rock had always promised to do.
But Born to Run was not that music. It sounded instead like the end of an era, the climax of the first twenty years of this grand tradition, the apex of our collective adolescence. Darkness on the Edge of Town does not. It feels like the threshold of a new period in which we’ll again have “lives on the line where dreams are found and lost.” It poses once more the question that rock & roll’s epiphanic moments always raise: Do you believe in magic?
And once again, the answer is yes. Absolutely.
~  Dave Marsh (July 27, 1978)
TRACKS:
All songs written by Bruce Springsteen.
Side one
“Badlands” – 4:01
“Adam Raised a Cain” – 4:32
“Something in the Night” – 5:11
“Candy’s Room” – 2:51
“Racing in the Street” – 6:53
Side two
“The Promised Land” – 4:33
“Factory” – 2:17
“Streets of Fire” – 4:09
“Prove It All Night” – 3:56
“Darkness on the Edge of Town” – 4:30
A box set reissue, entitled The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, was released on November 16, 2010. The six-disc set includes three CDs and three DVDs. This contains a remastered version of the Darkness on the Edge of Town album, a new two-CD album, The Promise containing 21 previously unreleased outtakes from the Darkness sessions, a documentary titled The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town and 2 DVDs of live performances.
TRACKS:
CD 1 – “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (Digitally Remastered)
Badlands
Adam Raised a Cain
Something in the Night
Candy’s Room
Racing in the Street
The Promised Land
Factory
Streets of Fire
Prove It All Night
Darkness on the Edge of Town
CD 2 – “The Promise” (Disc 1)
Racing in the Street (’78)
Gotta Get That Feeling
Outside Looking In
Someday (We’ll Be Together)
One Way Street
Because the Night
Wrong Side of the Street
The Brokenhearted
Rendezvous
Candy’s Boy
CD 3 – “The Promise” (Disc 2)
Save My Love
Ain’t Good Enough for You
Fire
Spanish Eyes
It’s a Shame
Come On (Let’s Go Tonight)
Talk to Me
The Little Things (My Baby Does)
Breakaway
The Promise
City of Night
The Way (hidden track)
DVD 1 – The Promise: The Making of “Darkness on the Edge of Town”
A documentary directed by Grammy- and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Thom Zimny. The ninety-minute film combines never-before-seen footage of Springsteen and the E Street Band shot between 1976 and 1978—including home rehearsals and studio sessions—with new interviews with Springsteen, E Street Band members, manager Jon Landau, former-manager Mike Appel, and others closely involved in the making of the record. An edited version of the documentary was broadcast by the BBC.
DVD 2 – “Darkness on the Edge of Town”: Paramount Theatre, Asbury Park & Thrill Hill Vault: 1976–1978
An intimate and complete album performance of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” at Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, New Jersey, shot in 2009. Never-before seen archival footage from the Thrill Hill Vault including complete song performances taken from private band rehearsals, studio sessions, and live concerts during the “Darkness” era.
Badlands
Adam Raised a Cain
Something in the Night
Candy’s Room
Racing in the Street
The Promised Land
Factory
Streets of Fire
Prove It All Night
Darkness on the Edge of Town
Thrill Hill Vault (1976–1978)
Save My Love (Holmdel, NJ – ’76)
Candy’s Boy (Holmdel, NJ – ’76)
Something in the Night (Red Bank, NJ – ’76)
Don’t Look Back (NYC – ’78)
Ain’t Good Enough for You (NYC – ’78)
The Promise (NYC – ’78)
Candy’s Room Demo (NYC – ’78)
Badlands (Phoenix – ’78)
The Promised Land (Phoenix – ’78)
Prove It All Night (Phoenix – ’78)
Born to Run (Phoenix – ’78)
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) (Phoenix – ’78)
DVD 3 – Houston ’78 Bootleg: House Cut
Previously unreleased complete concert performance from the Darkness on the Edge of Town Tour.
Badlands
Streets of Fire
It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City
Darkness on the Edge of Town
Spirit in the Night
Independence Day
The Promised Land
Prove It All Night
Racing in the Street
Thunder Road
Jungleland
The Ties That Bind
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
The Fever
Fire
Candy’s Room
Because the Night
Point Blank
She’s the One
Backstreets
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Born to Run
Detroit Medley
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
You Can’t Sit Down
Quarter to Three

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Bruce Springsteen: “Spirit In the Night”

MAY 1973 (39 YEARS AGO)
Bruce Springsteen: “Spirit In the Night” b/w “For You” (Columbia 4-45864) 45 single is released in the US.
“Spirit in the Night” is a song written and originally recorded by New Jersey based singer/songwriter Bruce Springsteen for his debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973). It was also the second single released from the album. A cover version performed by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band was released on the album Nightingales and Bombers and as a Top 40 single.
The original version of “Spirit in the Night” was released on Bruce Springsteen’s debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.. It was one of the last songs to be written and recorded for Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. Springsteen had recorded 10 other tracks for the album, but Clive Davis, president of the record label that was releasing the album, was concerned that the recorded tracks did not have enough commercial appeal. As a result, Springsteen quickly wrote and recorded two additional songs: “Spirit in the Night” and “Blinded by the Light”. Because these songs were added so late in the recording process, several of Springsteen’s band members were unavailable to record these two songs. As a result, the recording lineup for “Spirit in the Night” was limited to Vini Lopez on drums, Clarence Clemons on saxophone, and Springsteen himself playing all other instruments. Although “Spirit in the Night” was one of the last songs written for the album, it did grow out of an earlier version of the song that Springsteen had played live prior to receiving his recording contract.
Although most of the songs on Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. were packed with lyrics to the extent that sometimes they overwhelm the musical arrangements, “Spirit in the Night” has been described as the one song on the album on which the music and narrative fit together. Clemons’ sax playing and Lopez’ drumming match the freedom and ebullience described in the lyrics. The lyrics themselves describe a group of teenagers — Wild Billy, Hazy Davy, Crazy Janey, Killer Joe, and G-Man — going to a spot called “Greasy Lake” near “Route 88” for a night of freedom, sex, and drinking. But although their escape to the freedom of Greasy Lake is short lived, the emphasis is on the friends’ togetherness.

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Graham Parker: The Up Escalator

ON THIS DATE (32 YEARS AGO)
May 23, 1980 – Graham Parker: The Up Escalator is released.
# ALL THINGS MUSIC PLUS+ 4/5
# Allmusic 3.5/5 stars
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
The Up Escalator is an album by Graham Parker and was released on May 23, 1980 by Stiff Records
It marked the end of an era for Graham Parker. It was the last album he’d make with The Rumour, who lent strong-but-supple rock-&-roll muscle to his acerbic songs. It was a memorable swan song, though, from the driving “Endless Night,” with a guest appearance from Bruce Springsteen, to the infectious “Stupefaction.” Parker would go on to make some fine records sans the Rumour, but he’d never again sound as sharp and vital as he did with them on his team. 

ORIGINAL ROLLING STONE REVIEW
There’s a big gap between being a rock & roll classicist and actually turning out classics. Specifically, it’s the difference between reaffirming traditional rock truisms and reinvigorating them — between, say. Tom Petty, whose rich and ringing minianthems meld half-a-dozen heartfelt homages, and Graham Parker, who aims higher without thinking about it.
Parker’s early records — like the Band’s — didn’t sound like anybody so much as everybody. This music tapped into the mysteries of rock & roll at their source and washed back all the accumulated resonances of the years in between Graham Parker’s voice was like a King Curtis say line, urgent and visceral, powered by passion instead of technique. Emblematic moral concerns — like the struggle for honorable survival in a rigged-deck world — gave Parker’s songs a consistency of vision as surely as Bruce Springsteen’s trademark landscapes did his. Parker’s was a passion informed by the awareness of restraints, and on last year’s Squeezing Out Sparks, he fashioned (along with producer Jack Nitzsche a sound to match taut as isometrics, with succinct, hook-filled guitars and lots of empty space. The Rumour seized Parker’s passion and focused it, honed it like a knife.
Regrettably, on The Up Escalator, producer Jimmy Iovine (and perhaps, though I hope not. Parker himself) has taken the lessons of the last LP and torn them down for high-rises. The new album seems like an attempt to “gentrify” Parker, to turn him into a commercial classic-by-association by surrounding him with blue-chip artifacts: e.g., the Chase Manhattan mural cover art, a host of “legitimizing” guest musicians (including. O Lord, the Boss himself). Such an attempt merely devalues Graham Parker’s artistry as well as his past achievements. It also drastically undermines his material.
Throughout the record. Brinsley Schwarz’ and Martin Belmont’s guitars are submerged in the mix, while all the free space is stuffed with the sterile keyboard flourishes of Nicky Hopkins, who replaces the departed — and impeccable — Bob Andrews. Hopkins brittle honky-tonking has been a cliche for years, and his innocuous playing is completely inappropriate to Parker’s music. (He transforms “Devil’s Sidewalk” into something about as threatening as Park Avenue.) There isn’t a cut — except the deliberately rinky-dink “Stupefaction” — that Hopkins doesn’t deaden with his all-purpose, stylized noodling. The result is a sound that’s turgid and passionless: Graham Parker sanitized. It makes the opening number. “No Holding Back,” seem as tauntingly ironic as last year’s “Don’t Get Excited.” But the catch is that “No Holding Back” isn’t meant to be ironic.
In addition to sabotaging songs. The Up Escalator’s lackluster sound brutally exposes failures of performance, composition and nerve. This LP has an odd, slapdash feel. It’s as if, in belatedly attempting to reconstruct (rather than capture) Parker’s rough attack, Jimmy Iovine mistook sloppiness for soul and recorded an album of reference vocals. On Squeezing Out Sparks. Parker’s voice trampolined off his tight instrumental backing, gaining power and momentum with each controlled collision. Here, instead of swapping tensions, he’s forced to create his own, plugging the gap with technique. But the last thing that Graham Parker should do is learn how to sing. There’s an unwelcome tentativeness to some of his vocals now. Lines drift off uneasily, as though he’s not sure where to put them. When Parker slows and drops his voice before the chorus of the poignant “The Beating of Another Heart,” it sinks beneath the plodding drumbeats as if it’s caught in quicksand.
Paradoxically, in “Endless Night” (the much-heralded “duet” with Bruce Springsteen that opens side two), sloppiness actually works to advantage. Springsteen enters the track — basically an uninteresting throwaway — in the middle of the second verse as though he’d suddenly wandered into the studio. But that demystifying haphazardness — and the just-singing-along irrelevance of Springsteen’s harmonies — give the song a heady vulgarity and spontaneous exuberance that the rest of the record totally lacks.
Amid the mediocre, incomplete and ill-served tunes, however, are a few numbers that — potentially — could stand with Parker’s best work. With its stinging guitar accents and edgy, obsessively repeated hook. “Empty Lives” seems constructed for franticness, speed and tension. The dramatic extended fade and return is just the sort of thing that the Rumour would flex their muscles around masterfully in concert liven here, they very nearly manage it, until the abrupt addition of Jimmy Maelen’s intrusive — and, it sounds to me, carelessly off-the beat — percussion trips up the pace like a dog yapping alongside a racing cyclist.
Despite its flaws, though. “Empty Lives” is the LP’s most successful song, as well as the most thematically engrossing Like much of The Up Escalator. it’s concerned with the pull of obsessions. Parker parades obsessions through his lyrics: temptations and hungers, desires fulfilled and terribly mismatched — from the cheap-shot excesses that squelch insight and sensuality in “Stupefaction” to the lust for integrity that frustrates fervor in “The Beating of Another Heart.” People stare into the sun until they go blind, mistake gluttony for satisfaction, play Procrustes until others fit the measure of their keening wants. Graham Parker, as usual outraged but not immune, shoulders his way through with the self-aggrandizing paranoia of the crusading moralist. In “Empty Lives,” desire is only a mask for the kind of hollow soul-stealing that’s as infectious as a vampire’s bite. Contact doesn’t enrich but leaves you reeling with the shock of love Moans Parker, trapped unaware into craving:
Bring me some water
Bring me cocaine
Bring me something lethal
Something that leaves no stain
But please don’t make me feel that emptiness again.
Even the most honorable emotions are vulnerable and therefore suspect. “I make a feeding frenzy out of loving you.” Parker bellows in “Jolie Jolie,” a song to his recent bride. It’s the album’s most arresting line. Like the swiftly flickering passions of the Pretenders’ “Up the Neck,” love — when held a beat too long — turns into sheer appetite. Almost offhandedly, Parker introduces surreal, horrific images (“In the Mexican quarter now/The women so hungry that they eat their own kids”), juxtaposing them with his lover’s exhortations to cast a cautionary shadow over his own happiness even while the tune’s jaunty chorus celebrates it.
That these compositions can come across so potently despite the sonic sabotage of their arrangements simply reconfirms Parker’s stature as a writer and performer — and, by extension, the stunning mediocrity of this record as a whole. The Up Escalator is a waste of some terrific material. More important, it’s a waste of Graham Parker’s time. He should know that blue chips are a lousy investment in an inflationary era. These days, all the smart money is going into art.
~ Debra Rae Cohen (July 24, 1980)
TRACKS:
All tracks composed by Graham Parker
Up (Side 1)
“No Holding Back”
“Devil’s Sidewalk”
“Stupefaction”
“Empty Lives”
“The Beating Of Another Heart”
Down (Side 2)
“Endless Night”
“Paralyzed”
“Maneuvers”
“Jolie Jolie”
“Love Without Greed”

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Bruce Springsteen: Devils & Dust


ON THIS DATE (7 YEARS AGO)
April 26, 2005 – Bruce Springsteen: Devils & Dust is released.
# ALL THINGS MUSIC PLUS+ 4/5
# allmusic 4/5


Devils & Dust is the 13th studio album by Bruce Springsteen, and his third folk album (after Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad). It was released on this date in April, 2005 in the US. It debuted at the top of the US Billboard 200 album chart.


Springsteen received five Grammy Award nominations for this work, three for the song “Devils & Dust”, Song of the Year, Best Rock Song, and Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance, and two for the album as a whole, Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Long Form Music Video. His sole award came for Best Solo Rock Vocal, an award he garnered in previous years for “Code of Silence” and “The Rising”.


REVIEW
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Every decade or so, Bruce Springsteen releases a somber album of narrative songs, character sketches, and folk tunes — records that play not like rock & roll, but rather as a collection of short stories. Nebraska, released in the fall of 1982 during the rise of Reagan’s America, was the first of these, with the brooding The Ghost of Tom Joad following in 1995, in the thick of the Clinton administration but before the heady boom days of the late ’90s. At the midpoint of George W. Bush’s administration, Springsteen released Devils & Dust, another collection of story songs that would seem on the surface to be a companion to Nebraska and Ghost, but in actuality is quite a different record than either. While the characters that roam through Devils & Dust are similarly heartbroken, desperate, and downtrodden, they’re far removed from the criminals and renegades of Nebraska, and the album doesn’t have the political immediacy of Ghost’s latter-day Woody Guthrie-styled tales — themes that tied together those two albums. Here, the songs and stories are loosely connected. Several are set in the West, some are despairing, some have signs of hope, a couple are even sweet and light. Springsteen’s writing is similarly varied, occasionally hearkening back to the spare, dusty prose of Nebraska, but often it’s densely composed, assured, and evocative, written as if the songs were meant to be read aloud, not sung. But the key to Devils & Dust, and why it’s his strongest record in a long time, is that the music is as vivid and varied as the words. Unlike the meditative, monochromatic The Ghost of Tom Joad, this has different shades of color, so somber epics like “The Hitter” or the sad, lonely “Reno” are balanced by the lighter “Long Time Comin’,” “Maria’s Bed,” and “All I’m Thinkin’ About,” while the moodier “Black Cowboys” and “Devils & Dust” are enhanced by subtly cinematic productions. It results in a record that’s far removed in feel from the stark, haunting Nebraska, but on a song-for-song level, it’s nearly as strong, since its stories linger in the imagination as long as the ones from that 1982 masterpiece (and they stick around longer than those from Ghost, as well). Devils & Dust is also concise and precisely constructed, two things the otherwise excellent 2002 comeback The Rising was not, and that sharp focus helps make this the leanest, artiest, and simply best Springsteen record in many years.


TRACKS:
All songs are written by Bruce Springsteen.
“Devils & Dust” – 4:58
“All the Way Home” – 3:38
“Reno” – 4:08
“Long Time Comin'” – 4:17
“Black Cowboys” – 4:08
“Maria’s Bed” – 5:35
“Silver Palomino” – 3:22
“Jesus Was an Only Son” – 2:55
“Leah” – 3:32
“The Hitter” – 5:53
“All I’m Thinkin’ About” – 4:22
“Matamoros Banks” – 4:00

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