Devils & Dust
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Bruce Springsteen’s best story-songs
On his new CD Devils & Dust, Bruce Springsteen sings from the point of view of a soldier fighting in Iraq, a black kid escaping the ghetto, a man visiting a Nevada prostitute, and nine other characters whose experiences are far removed from his own. No wonder critics praise his Everyman qualities. Fans think of Springsteen as a roadhouse rocker, a liberal activist, and a regular guy from New Jersey, but he’s at his most distinctive when he steps into another persona and becomes a storyteller. His novelist’s gift for capturing a character’s voice is especially apparent when Springsteen strips down his arrangements to little more than an acoustic guitar, as he does on Devils. It’s a challenge to whittle down more than three decades of Springsteen’s music into just 10 great storyteller songs, but here are EW.com’s picks. (Disagree? Post your own favorites below.)
”Incident on 57th Street” (The Wild, The Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle, 1973)
Springsteen’s first attempt at pop opera, this tale of a one-night stand (between two characters who try half-heartedly to convince themselves that it could last longer) transcends its gritty fire-escape setting and soars heavenward on a gorgeous choral arrangement of guitars and pianos.
”Meeting Across the River” (Born to Run, 1975)
This vignette plays like a miniature Mean Streets or a Sopranos episode: Two small-time New Jersey hoods finally get a break, a score involving a Manhattan big shot, but it seems evident that they’re going to screw it up. Still, Springsteen gives their big dreams dignity with a bright, wistful trumpet-and-piano accompaniment.
”Jungleland” (Born to Run, 1975)
”There’s an opera out on the turnpike/ There’s a ballet being fought out in the alley,” Springsteen sings in this sweeping, epic panorama of street gangs, club kids, furtive lovers, and wounded survivors. It marks the peak — and last gasp — of what might be called Springsteen’s early West Side Story period.
”Racing in the Street” (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)
In which Springsteen reveals the dark underside to the girls-and-hot-rods milieu of his early work. In this mournful ballad, the street-racing protagonist and the girl he stole from another driver grow bitter, or maybe just grow up. At the end, they light out of town, hoping for rebirth as the sun sets.
”Nebraska” (Nebraska, 1982)
Springsteen launches his first acoustic album with this chilling-yet-gentle recounting of the Charles Starkweather serial-killing rampage, told from Starkweather’s point of view. Why’d he do it? ”I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
”Highway Patrolman” (Nebraska, 1982
This tale of two brothers, one a cop and one an outlaw, is so rich in character and homespun detail, it could be a movie. In fact, it was: Sean Penn turned it into 1991’s The Indian Runner, his directorial debut.
”Born in the USA” (Born in the USA, 1984)
Springsteen often mixes fist-pumping arrangements with downbeat lyrics, never to better effect than here. That contrast adds an extra layer of irony to the story of a disillusioned Vietnam veteran who, despite his frustration, still thinks of himself as ”a cool rocking daddy in the USA.” It’s no wonder that in ’84, presidential candidates from both parties claimed Springsteen’s narrator — and the Boss himself — for their own. Both were mistaken.
”Galveston Bay” (The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995)
On his second acoustic CD, Springsteen emulates the title character and gives voice to homeless men, ex-convicts, illegal immigrants, and, in this song, two antagonists: a Vietnamese immigrant seeking the American dream in Texas, and a resentful Vietnam veteran who believes that dream is being usurped. Even if you’ve heard this song before, you’ll still feel the suspense as their tragic conflict plays out.
”Paradise” (The Rising, 2002)
Springsteen’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks is a grandly generous work of empathy; on The Rising he sings in the voices of firefighters inside the towers, bereft survivors, and, in this audacious tune, a suicide bomber. Wisely, Springsteen avoids the political, focusing only on the character’s loneliness, sense of exile, and faint hopes of a reunion with a loved one in paradise. Helping Springsteen pull it off is a spare, haunting, minor-key arrangement.
”Matamoros Banks” (Devils & Dust, 2005)
Even more than on Tom Joad, Springsteen stretches his imagination to embrace a variety of characters far removed from his own comfortable existence. The CD’s most daring experiment in empathy may be the final track, in which he sings in the voice of an illegal immigrant who drowns while trying to cross the river. The rotting away of his earthly body (”The turtles eat the skin from your eyes, so they lay open to the stars”) doesn’t stop him from hoping for a reunion with his sweetheart on the far banks. Springsteen sings with such serene calm that you think the man might actually make it.