When Bruce Springsteen returned from a long recording hiatus with 2002's The Rising, he had little choice but to make a lot of noise. He'd just come off a triumphant reunion with the E Street Band, and it would almost have been disrespectful to do anything else. But more pressingly, the times demanded it. The atmosphere in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks demanded Big Statements from Great American Artists, and with The Rising, Springsteen took the challenge, offering songs of loss, hope, and redemption on the largest canvas available. After all, if Springsteen couldn't get through this, what hope was there for the rest of us? It was the right album for the time, but it was also something of an anomaly. Springsteen hadn't gone that big since Born In The U.S.A., and with Devils & Dust, he returns to the quieter character studies that characterized his post-Born albums. Fortunately, the E Street reunion and The Rising have stuck with him. The volume's gone down, but the intensity remains.
Where The Rising felt like an attempt to sum up the state of the nation as a whole, Devils & Dust is concerned with individuals, particularly those coming to recognize some hard truths about their lives, even if it's by accident. In "Reno," a prostitute's casual toast to "the best you ever had" stirs up loneliness a john had forgotten. In "Black Cowboys," a city kid fulfills childhood dreams of wandering the open prairie, but under the worst circumstances imaginable. The title track zeroes in on one soldier to determine the psychic costs of war, while "Jesus Was An Only Son" offers an account of the Crucifixion that gets to deeper emotions than The Passion Of The Christ's torn flesh and spurting blood could ever hope to reach.
Characterized by empathy, reserved judgment, and unexpected revelations, Springsteen's lyrics here owe as much to short stories as to poetry, but the music doesn't get forgotten in the process. Working closely with producer Brendan O'Brien, Springsteen opts for a spare, open sound. Some of the uptempo songs veer toward Sheryl Crow-like anonymity, but mostly, the spotlight remains on Springsteen the singer/songwriter.
Ultimately, Devils & Dust feels like his attempt to reestablish himself as a working performer; his new material comes without weighty expectations for grand pronouncements, or the burdens of being a living icon. In that way, it's considerably more successful than his last such attempt, the 1995 album The Ghost Of Tom Joad. Here, Springsteen sounds passionate about his material, throwing himself into the middle of difficult situations and singing from ground level. It sounds like The Boss just wants to be a working man for now. So far, he sounds up to the task.