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First listen: Springsteen's Devils & Dust

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Exchange: Perry and Scholtes on Bruce Springsteen Devils & Dust listening party 

Steve Perry: First I'll say that I don't trust my impressions of anything I've heard once, particularly since we only heard half the record.

(And for the record, the half of the closely guarded Springsteen launch codes that Sony elected to share with us consisted of "Devils & Dust," the title track and first single; "All the Way Home," a re-written and re-arranged older tune originally composed as a torchy ballad for Southside Johnny; "Maria's Bed," a new midtempo song; the ballad "Jesus Was an Only Son"; "The Hitter," a story ballad written during the Tom Joad tour and performed once back then; and "All I'm Thinking About," a rave-up-lite love song clearly arranged for the stage show, as was "All the Way Home.")

Okay, impressions: I really liked the sound of it-- the openness, the clarity, the melodicism, the easy swing of the E Street Band recast as a jug band. [NOTE: We didn't see the album credits, but Dave Marsh subsequently informs me that the playing on the record is almost strictly Bruce, Steve Jordan, and Brendan O'Brien.] It's a country-ish hybrid that sounded great to me on first listen. Working with Brendan O'Brien has proven to be one of the smartest things Bruce has done in a long time.

And because of the way it sounds, mainly, you can already see where the reviews are going to go. It'll be compared to Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, of course, but I suspect the most popular critical cliche will be calling it Bruce's John Wesley Harding, or his Basement Tapes. You know: a record that steps back from its times and yet, through the magic of prophet-vision, manages to encompass the secret heart of its times, blah blah blah. And you know, that may be a useful comparison, or not, but it does seem like a comparison the record invites based on the little bit we heard. Either way, I'll bet the reviews are going to skew that way, and judge the record a success whether it is or not, because now it's cool to venerate Bruce again.

What I can't even begin to tell yet is how the songs are going to wear on a listener, or what they add up to. The two that struck me hardest in terms of both lyrics and singing were "Jesus Was an Only Son" and "The Hitter." Both very strong, and I suspect the latter will turn out to be the real heart of the record. The others mainly struck me as pieces of genre-writing, songcraft, and nobody does that better than he does. But I didn't get anything new off them on first listen.

And I thought "Devils & Dust" itself was pretty middling. It's well-crafted, the lyrics are smart and on point, it sounds good in a sort of generic Bruce way--and yet it feels strained to me somehow. As if he's striving too consciously to speak as "Bruce Springsteen," an artist of whom people expect certain things--like a one or two verse summary of the zeitgeist at street level--and who aims to please. Oddly, though, the selection of songs we heard mostly seem to run in the opposite direction from that impulse. To what effect--a genre-record and holding action, like Human Touch; his own Basement Tapes; a sonically better-produced set of social sketches like Tom Joad--I have no idea yet. What'd you think?

Peter S. Scholtes: First, I've never been to one of these record-company sponsored "listening parties" before. Is it normal for them to hook up electrodes to your ears?

Let's just start with "Devils & Dust": Isn't Bruce Springsteen at his most powerful when he feels obliged to be "Bruce Springsteen"? That's what "Born in the U.S.A." (the song) was to me, and "The Rising." My first impression of this new song was that "fear" is the new "hate," a useful emotion that gets blamed for all social ills. In this case, the idea is that we're in Iraq because of "fear," or because fear has turned our hearts "black." This seems simplistic at first. The publicist said Springsteen wrote the song during the "Rock the Vote" tour but I think she meant the "Vote For Change Tour." Anyway, the refrain goes: "I got God on my side/I'm just trying to survive/What if what you do to survive/Kills the things you love/Fear's a powerful thing/It can turn your heart black you can trust."

Actually, now that I play the song in my head again, it's growing on me. You're right that repeated listenings are key. Springsteen either sounds like a woman or a 90-year-old Bob Dylan on most of these songs, with the result that most of the lyrics would have been unintelligible without the DVD video screen showing us all the words. There's a line in "The Hitter" that goes "As they raised his arm, my stomach twisted, and the sky it went black" and it comes out "Sleeeeeeeee-staaaaaaaaaack."

Perry: You're right that the record contains a lot of vocal tics and idiosyncrasies of phrasing, and we'll see how they wear--they'd better wear well, since Springsteen's voice has never been so out front in a recording before. The engineer's got the vocal microphone EQ tweaked up to a point that would make Michael Jackson proud. I liked the quietness and weirdness of the phrasing and the way certain lines got swallowed, but that's hearing it once. Those nuances will either deepen with repeated listening or get really, really cloying. No middle ground, I'm afraid.

And no, I don't think he's at his best when he feels obliged to try to be Bruce Springsteen. "The Rising" is the best-case version of that impulse, but I think songs like "41 Shots" and "Land of Hope and Dreams," to name a couple of compositions from the past five or six years, have labored under it to much less effect. As for "Devils & Dust," the song, I just don't know yet.

And what about that video track from the DVD side? I hated it. I'm sure a lot of fans will eat it up, but I could do without his explaining the record to me. The presumption that it matters to do this, and people will care, has got an air of noblesse oblige about it that I don't like. Plus, did he really say that "you've got to write from the essential core of you... or the song dies"? Thanks, Bruce, and Woof! to you too. (Another thing: He's always had one of those great chameleonic faces in front of the camera, but I honestly can't remember seeing him look like Stan Laurel before. I assume tubercular Jimmie Rodgers is the look he's going for, but it's forlorn Stan he gets.)

I'll turn it back to you with the only essential listening-party question there is: As a casual-at-most fan, do you want to hear it again? Do you want to hear the rest of it?

Scholtes: Yeah, sure, especially "The Hitter." That's the one song where the story kind of hooks you by the collar and makes you care about what happens next. It has plenty of memorable details, like the boxer's glove separating his opponent's skin from his bones. Springsteen gets into trouble when he abstracts out from the specific, and starts to get mystical. There's something humorous about "Maria's Bed," where he's so taken with this woman's sleeping and fucking arrangements, he could be describing the Mississippi River, or the face of God, or eternal bliss itself. When he sings, "Then I drank the cool clear waters from Maria's bed," my first thought was: Is it a water bed?

Sorry, I have to linger on that image for a sec: an impassioned Springsteen down on all fours, gradually glugging the contents of a waterbed.

The sound on this album is nice, but nothing special. The drums on a couple songs sound to me like buried snare beats from an old drum machine, which is cool. "All the Way Home" reminded me of "I Turned Out a Punk" by Big Audio Dynamite, though Springsteen will never have a record where the production calls attention to itself that way. I'd love to hear him in a completely foreign setting, like when he sang with U2 at the Rock and Roll hall of Fame ceremony this year. There's a great noisy harmonica solo on "All the Way Home," that makes me wonder if he shouldn't hook up with Jack White. When I saw Springsteen live for the first time last year, I was surprised by what a dissonant guitarist he is. I would have liked to hear more of that kind of noise here, but I'll take the harmonica for now.

As for the DVD making-of-the-record documentary, I don't blame Bruce. Over-explaining is a phenomenon of our era that will hopefully be looked back on with sarcasm. I'm looking forward to a DVD version of City Pages in which Steve Perry explains that in order to write an op-ed piece, he must first start from somewhere within himself, otherwise the results turn out false.

So what did you think of "Jesus Was an Only Son"? I guess if Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson get to describe Jesus's last days, Bruce Springsteen has every right to weigh in.

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