I listen to a lot of music. I listen to Brazilian pop when I write, to some rap albums I’d forgotten I love so much when I cook, to Jelly Roll Morton when I read, to pop of all sorts in my headphones when I’m surfing the internet. When I ate a candlelit dinner of homemade quiche and salmon with a friend last weekend, Beck’s Guero buzzed and thumped in the background. When I take that long drive to Dallas, to visit my folks over Thanksgiving and Christmas, I blare Cornershop and Talking Heads and great mix tapes as loud as my speakers can handle them. When I drive down to the Mississippi coast, I’ve usually got Bruce Springstreen on, full blast like a sonic barrage, as the trees on Highway 49 blow by me.
I listen to a lot of music, but only as I’m doing something else. It’s rare that I just sit with an album, with my full attention on a song. I tell myself that I don’t have that kind of spare time. There are records that I love, love, love—Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 (with Dawn Upshaw on soprano); Osvaldo Golijov’s Passion of St. Mark, Phish’s Billy Breathes—that I only play all the way through, maybe, twice a year. I have to give them my undivided attention. I’ll spend an hour reading the same page over and over when listening to the Górecki, because my mind’s nowhere near the book. I’ve overcooked vegetables because I started playing air drums as a Phish song played.
Depending on which Bruce Springsteen album I’m listening to, I can get by without the urge to get up and shake my ass, or sit slackjawed as a song rolls by. Born to Run? I’m fine. I can drive to the propulsive Live: 1975-1985, but don’t ask me to do anything that requires more concentration. The Rising used to be an undivided-attention record, but I’ve played it so many times that I’ve got whole sections of it memorized—every drumbeat, every guitar solo, every background vocal—and it can, finally, serve as atmosphere for me.
I’m not sure I love Springsteen’s new Devils & Dust the way I love any of the above. The songs percolate, becoming stronger and more layered as they play on, until they build up gradually into little pieces of transcendence. It’s a slow album, requiring completely open ears as you hear minute changes in phrases you only thought were repeating themselves. “Long Time Comin’” is the only full-blown rocker here. Everything else fuses together strands of folk, country, down-home blues, and something intangible that can only be called Americana.
Not everything works. Some songs—“Black Cowboys,” “The Hitter,” “Silver Palomino”—feel like short stories that Springsteen has tried to smush into song form. They’re not particularly rhythmic and the music is perfunctory—often, his singing steps over the beats. It’s here where he tries, unsuccessfully, to slur and slide his lyrics into the beats, making sloppy half-rhymes and intentionally mispronouncing words so that they fit the context of the song.
It’s a shame. The images in these songs are perhaps more evocative than any others on the record. But the songs that work, and there are several, work because Springsteen’s voice dips and flows perfectly into the music. Devils & Dust is more melodious in its overall sound than most of his albums. Individual guitar strings shimmer; surging string sections work well as singular units and as separate instruments; the production is precise and delicate, as if Springsteen wants each note to be as distinct as the lives he portrays in his songs. The title song, “Jesus Was An Only Son,” “Maria’s Bed,” and “All I’m Thinkin’ About” are among the best songs he’s recorded in a decade.
It’s not the best album Springsteen has ever made, but it’s the one that’s required the most careful attention since 1982’s Nebraska. The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle hit me in the gut—I haven’t loved a song so fiercely and so immediately as “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” Devils & Dust doesn’t sucker-punch me, but its sting might last longer. We’ll see.