We gave it an A-
Anyone who wanted to see the lovers of ”Rosalita” live happily ever after may imagine that Bruce Springsteen has given them a sequel in ”Long Time Comin’,” the most spirited number off Devils & Dust. It’s probably his penchant for reusing names that’s responsible for the narrator’s wife being called ”Rosie,” not any assurance that the couple from 1973 turned out okay. Still, it’s fun to imagine that they grew up into the marrieds enjoying a camping trip with their kids in ”Comin’,” which ends with the contented protagonist making a silent fireside vow to be the first not to pass the sins of the fathers to the next generation.
Enjoy that happy moment, because it’s nearly a token one in Devils & Dust, which carries on in the tough, unelectrified tradition of The Ghost of Tom Joad and Nebraska. Springsteen may still be on a guilt trip about enabling America’s romantics with escapist anthems like ”Thunder Road” and ”Born to Run,” and his penance lies in the occasional acoustic album, wherein the characters’generally bad ends are as clearly in sight as the stark weather on the open plains he favors when he’s in fatalistic mode. Whatever the motivation, when it comes to combining a literary quality with a colloquial voice, nobody does it better — still. You might dread hearing a rock star pretend to know what it’s like to be a soldier in Iraq, but he fully inhabits the title track’s grunt, who’s hoping God is on our side, even after finding demonology in the combat details and spirit-trumping dust in the decaying casualties. More presumptuously, and just as successfully, two numbers have him playing a Latino: In one, a border crosser pledges love to his woman from the bottom of the Rio Grande, in which he’s just drowned (”Matamoras Banks”); in another, a heartbroken man dreams of his lost love while consorting with a hooker (”Reno”). Losers predominate; when a boxer appears, you know he ain’t the heavyweight champ, even before the lyrical fix is in.
This downheartedness can become its own shtick. But Devils is a more mature effort than Joad and Nebraska, for being a little less bleak. Though three-fifths of the CD is in folk mode, he’s realized that a backbeat and halfway-warm group backing on a handful of cuts won’t offend Guthrie’s ghost. It’s also a sign of wizening that he holds out the barest hope for escape in a few songs — be it the city kid stealing a drug dealer’s money for a train ticket west in ”Black Cowboys” or two world-weary bar hounds considering a romantic walk ”All the Way Home.” Here’s to Bruce the Tragedian for remembering that if we weren’t really born to run, a few of us were destined to at least crawl from the wreckage.