Some days, I just want to listen, because there's nothing much to say. Today was one of those. And the music playing in my office above the tumult of Lexington Avenue was Bruce Springsteen's new and dark journey through the middle-aged American mind, Devils and Dust.
It's wonderful, his best work in years, better than the Ghost of Tom Joad, superior to the rushed 9/11 anthems of The Rising. In Devils and Dust, Springsteen completes a long artistic journey - from writing about people that he knows, to creating fully-formed characters he imagines. This record is his most literary work; the words leap off the page of the liner notes, the stories carry more weight than the melodies, the people seem so real.
Take Black Cowboys, the story of a kid from the Bronx who reads about the black cowboys of a previous time out west, and rides the rails to meet them. It's a tale of confronting fear and hopelessness by reaching for a longer, wider horizon and it begins with this wonderful description:
Rainey Williams playground was the Mott Haven streets where he ran past melted candles and flower wreaths, names and photos of young black faces, whose death and blood consecrated these places.
Rainey's mother said, "Rainey stay at my side, for you are my blessing you are my pride, it's your love here that keeps my soul alive, I want you to come home from school and stay inside."
But like all Springsteen characters, Rainey keeps moving in a land crossed by highways and train tracks. You know, Springsteen laid aside a career that mainly avoided directly political involvment last year to appear with John Kerry and to oppose George Bush. On those appearances, he pulled out his songs of the downtrodden. They're good, but they're the product of a younger man - a guy from New Jersey who was newly-rich, a successful father, happy with his American life.
This Springsteen has finally taken that next step; it no longer matters in the writing how much money he has, how happy his private life his, how great his buddies in the E Street Band are. He's not writing about his own journeys down the dark highway, his cars, his women. He's fully involved in the role of the creator of fiction and poetry and prose and song. My favorite song so far is Matamoros Banks, a story on the surface about Mexican immigrants, but really a poem about choosing advancement over love:
Each year many die crossing the deserts, mountains, and rivers of our southern border in search of a better life. Here I follow the journey backwards, from the body at the river bottom, to the man walking across the desert towards the banks of the Rio Grande.
For two days the river keeps you down
Then you rise to the light without a sound
Past the playgrounds and empty switching yards
The turtles eat the skin from your eyes, so they lay open to the stars
Your clothes give way to the current and river stone
'Till every trace of who you ever were is gone
And the things of the earth they make their claim
That the things of heaven may do the same
Goodbye, my darling, for your love I give God thanks,
Meet me on the Matamoros
Meet me on the Matamoros
Meet me on the Matamoros banks
So far, the critics don't like it - too dark, not accessible, and certainly not likely to pull the failing recorded music industry out of its nosedive. Too bad. Because Devils and Dust reignites some the promise of Bruce Springsteen that he's delivered on it fits and starts: the kind of storytelling he exhibited in those early John Hammond CBS sessions, doing a rambling Mary, Queen of Arkansas. Those were rhyming dictionary concoctions of a 22-year-old, but there was an alternative reality there worth exploring. Now, Springsteen's a 50-something North Jersey squire - not a skinny kid guitar player. But this work is reminiscent of those days three decades ago, a time when he was labelled the next Bob Dylan by the man who discovered the original. When you listen to Devils and Dust, you're hearing Bruce at his most Dylan-like. And man, it's worth the journey.
UPDATE: Fred likes the record.