Folk songs, whatever else they might be, are mainly craft. A good folk song tells you something you already know, in a form you’re already familiar with, on terms that were set down long before you were born-when the country was primarily windblown dust, open wagon trains and dysfunctional towns like Deadwood.
In the days following 9/11, when we were reeling and disoriented, there was a kind of solace to be found in old recordings, and even pseudo-folk singers like James Taylor seemed to be safeguarding something, drawing back bygone days. Tired old songs, thrust into the limelight on compilation recordings like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, forced us to listen once again to songs about chain gangs and hopeful Depression laments like “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” All of this was done in good faith, but ultimately-at least for this writer-it was another wearisome reminder of our unhealthy obsession with authenticity, a never-ending search that dates back to the Industrial Revolution, when suddenly everything could be replicated, from furniture to images. Even the best of us are like a bunch of D.A.R. widows drinking tea and tracing our roots proudly back to Plymouth Rock.
Shortly after 9/11, in the spirit of folk, Bruce Springsteen gathered up the E Street Band and made The Rising, a record that tried hard to address our national trauma. Though a bit long and uneven, at its best the album produced classic Springsteen anthems, folkloric in their fidelity to old modes, that commanded us to rise up, throw our arms helplessly into the air and exalt, if only because we were alive together, survivors all. (I experienced this en masse when I went to see the Boss at Giant Stadium on a warm summer night and heard a thousand souls trust their untrained vocal cords to the soggy marsh breeze of the Meadowlands in a kind of supersized tent revival.)
“Devils and Dust”-the title song on the new Columbia Records CD/DVD from Mr. Springsteen-is comprised of lyrics that are spare and simple, spoken by a soul with a finger on the trigger of a gun, locked in a moment of existential choice. This character may be at war, but we don’t know exactly where he or she might be, only that there’s something to be confronted, and that a question has been posed:
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love
Fear’s a powerful thing
It can turn your heart black you
It’ll take your God-filled soul
And fill it with devils and dust.
Outside of the song-as with most folk music-the lyrics seem lame, derivative, obvious. But as intoned by Mr. Springsteen they arrive in a tune that moves forward, steady and stately, with the beat of a funeral dirge, as flat and blunt as a protest song. Slowly, gradually, layers of background music are added, including a little hip-hop drum, so that in the end, without pushing it too far, the song feels thick and fully meaningful and completely contemporary.
The slow layering allows us to move seamlessly from folkloric Bruce to pop-star Bruce-from folk past to pop present-in a single song. It carries with it the deeper burdens of the last three and a half years; it seems the first song to truly address not only what happened on the morning of Sept. 11-back when that date was just another day on the calendar-but also the philosophical questions that arose from our response, here at home and in Iraq.
Mr. Springsteen quickly leaves Manhattan behind and heads out west, across the lonely reaches that he seems to know well, until he arrives in a Nevada hotel room, where a young man is about to be serviced by a prostitute. There’s a disorienting sensation when hearing “Reno” for the first time, partly because it’s one of the most sexually intimate folk songs ever written, revealing not only a story of two lonely souls but of the country itself, where everything is available for a price, where the streets are cluttered with material goods but lives are lived alone, in the deepest kind of isolation. A lonely john and a lonely prostitute quickly set down the economic terms (“Two hundred dollars straight in, two-fifty up the ass”); they share a moment of deep alienation, some casual banter and, in the end, a redemptive laugh.
“Reno,” which has already garnered attention for its explicit lyrics (which really aren’t that explicit), feels like the absolute center of the album, the dark star out of which radiate Raymond Carver–esque stories, each one about souls in thick domestic situations. “Long Time Comin'” is a defiant statement, the voice of a man who has traveled rough roads to arrive at an extreme but pure love. It moves vaguely forward on such lines as: “I’m riding hard carryin’ a catch of roses / And a fresh map that I made / Tonight I’m gonna get birth naked and bury my old soul / And dance on its grave.” But then, as the song draws close to its end, the lyrics grow more specific, zeroing in on the beloved, reaching for a deeper but more precise poetry: “Out ‘neath the arms of Cassiopeia / Where the sword of Orion sweeps / It’s me and you, Rosie, cracklin’ like crossed wires.”
If solace can’t come from the great American capitalist machine, these songs seem to say, at least it can be found between the sheets. The theme re-emerges later in a somewhat blunter form, in a song called “Maria’s Bed”: “I was burned by the angels, sold wings of lead / Then I fell in the roses and sweet salvation of Maria’s bed.”
Throughout Devils and Dust, characters negotiate the desire to move onward, to seek out whatever the hinterland offers, with the deeper need to find something intimate, warm and true. In “Black Cowboys,” a kid from Mott Haven quits the daily gunfire in the streets of the Bronx for a safer (perhaps) future in the mythic West. It’s a strange, allusive song that somehow makes sense, in part because it’s an inversion of the stereotypical western, turning the old pattern on its head: Gunfire and lawlessness lie to the East, and maybe, just maybe, one ghetto kid can be saved if he lights out for the territory. But the song refuses to guarantee a happy ending; the last image is of the moon rising up over the rutted hills of Oklahoma, stripping the earth down to the bone.
Halfway through the record, which was produced by Brendan O’Brien (who also produced The Rising), Mr. Springsteen ducks into church where we listen to a beautiful hymn, complete with a moment of quivering organ in the background. “Jesus Was an Only Son” is built around the eternal, everyday dynamic of mother and son, but the lyrics open up to the dark, unsolved mystery of unrequited love: The parent must release the child into the world.
Eventually, the stories in Devil and Dust stretch all the way to the Mexican border, where Mr. Springsteen once again explores that symbolically porous line in the sand. “Matamoros Banks” is a simple and sad elegy to a body at the bottom of the river. “For two days the river keeps you down / Then you rise to the light without a sound,” the song begins. “Your clothes give way to the current and river stone / Till every trace of who you ever were is gone.” Mr. Springsteen takes us to the terminus of the American Dream, the place where the hope for a better life meets a blunt reality. Borrowing the voice of the dead, Mr. Springsteen sings: “Goodbye, my darling, for your love I give God thanks …. Meet me on the Matamoros banks.” It’s an appropriate end to the record, using a folk song to enter into the soul of someone discarded and left to rot.
No matter how wonderful the lyrics are, how evocative, several of the songs on the CD side of Devils and Dust are never allowed to fall fully into the category of folk, to completely embody the narratives they unfold. Instead of unadorned craft, we get something layered and embellished. Brendan O’Brien’s production skills result in a clean, wide sound, and the final product is perfectly fine-perhaps one of the better Springsteen solo efforts. But my assessment of the music flipped at the same time I flipped over this so-called DualDisc and watched Mr. Springsteen perform five of the songs stripped of studio overdubs. Alone in a stark room, in an old chair with his pointy black boots on, he seems to become the words of the song. (Introducing one of them, he tells us: “Your voice is supposed to disappear into the voice of the person you’re singing about.”) Without the background instruments, the focus is on the intricate shifts of his voice, leaping up into falsettos, threading through the landscapes.
In light of the unplugged DVD performance, the tracks on the CD side of the disc (with the exception of a pair of up-tempo songs, “All the Way Home” and “Long Time Comin'”) suddenly seem stranded in a limbo between the arena-rock voice of the Boss and that barren nakedness he found for his seminal work, Nebraska. According to Mr. Springsteen, the songs on Devils and Dust were written some years back, composed alone on his guitar and harmonica. With their delicate modulations and their lonely themes, they were meant to stay that way, I think, embraced simply by the calloused fingers on the strings, the singular voice, the occasional harmonica riff.
My gut tells me-and who am I to look into my hero’s heart?-that Mr. Springsteen knows these songs work best as folk tunes. That’s why he’s taking them on the road alone, without a back-up band, presenting them to his audiences as they were originally created, born out of threadbare traditions, crafted out of history itself, bringing stories to light that would otherwise not be told.
David Means is the author of The Secret Goldfish and Assorted Fire Events, both of which will be out in paperback from Perennial in the fall.