April 24, 2005


Bruce Almighty (JON PARELES, 4/24/05, NY Times)

WHEN Bruce Springsteen talks about his new album, he can sound more like a preacher than a rock star. Soul and spirit, God and family; that's what's on his mind in the quiet, folky songs on Devils & Dust. He sings, reverently, about Jesus and his mother, Mary; he also sings about a man with a hooker in a hotel room.

"I like to write about people whose souls are in danger, who are at risk," Mr. Springsteen said. At rehearsals for a solo tour that starts on Monday in Detroit, he and his crew were fine-tuning technical details here at the Paramount Theater, the faded movie palace at the Asbury Park Convention Hall.

"In every song on this record," he added, "somebody's in some spiritual struggle between the worst of themselves and the best of themselves, and everybody comes out in a slightly different place. That thread runs through the record, and it's what gives the record its grounding in the spirit."

In a way, "Devils & Dust" is Mr. Springsteen's family-values album, filled with reflections on God, motherhood and the meaning of home. [...]

Thoughts of redemption, moral choices and invocations of God have been part of Springsteen songs throughout his career, but they have grown stronger and more explicitly Christian on his 21st-century albums. "It was something I pushed off for a long time," he said, "but I've been thinking about it a lot lately." He has a trinity of reasons for his connection to Christian imagery and concepts: "Catholic school, Catholic school, Catholic school," he said. "You're indoctrinated. It's a none-too subtle form of brainwashing, and of course, it works very well."

Mr. Springsteen grew up half a block away from his Catholic church, convent and rectory. "I'm not a churchgoer," he said, "but I realized, as time passed, that my music is filled with Catholic imagery. It's not a negative thing. There was a powerful world of potent imagery that became alive and vital and vibrant, and was both very frightening and held out the promise of ecstasies and paradise. There was this incredible internal landscape that they created in you."

"As I got older, I got a lot less defensive about it," he continued. "I thought, I've inherited this particular landscape and I can build it into something of my own. I've been back to the church on many occasions, and I have a lot of friendships with priests. And I've been to the convent where the nuns now give me beer, which they have in the refrigerator. I don't think they had that when I was going to school there."

The album includes "Jesus Was an Only Son," a hymnlike song about Mary's love that ends with Jesus consoling her, saying, "Remember the soul of the universe/Willed a world and it appeared." But "Devils & Dust" also includes "Reno," which has lyrics explicit enough to prompt a warning on the album package that it "contains some adult imagery." Its narrator visits a prostitute who resembles his ex-lover, only to feel more desolate afterward.

"He's in this room with this proxy because he couldn't handle the real thing," Mr. Springsteen said. "The physicality, the sexual content of the song was important, because casual sex is kind of closing the book of you. It's ecstasy, and it's release. Sex with somebody you love is opening the book of you, which is always a risky and frightening read."

The other kind of love on "Devils & Dust" is maternal and filial. Half the songs on the album, like "Jesus Was an Only Son," ponder relationships between mothers and sons. Mr. Springsteen has written often about his uneasy ties to his father, who died in 1998, but rarely about his mother, who is still, he said, "alive and kicking."

In "Black Cowboys," a ghetto teenager leaves his mother and her drug-dealer boyfriend and heads west; in "The Hitter," a broken-down boxer shows up at his mother's door and begs her to let him in. And in "Long Time Comin,' " a man feels his pregnant wife's belly and hopes, for his children, that "your mistakes would be your own/Yea your sins would be your own," once again connecting family and faith.

"Pete Townshend said that rock music was one of the big spiritual movements of the second half of the 20th century," Mr. Springsteen said. "It is medicinal and it does address your spirit, there's no two ways about it. And it came out of the church. Who were the first frontmen? The preachers!"

Given his politics, Mr. Springsteen generally makes you put up with an aw3ful lot of nonsensde, but The Rising too was a moving and deeply spiritual disc.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 24, 2005 4:46 PM

My wife and I were listening to a drooling interview of Springsteen on NPR as I took her to work this morning, and she wanted to know why people grovel over him.

'It's the same tinny song over and over.'

'Beats me,' I said. 'I thought Lester Bangs said it all 30 years ago -- too many words.'

We don't share many likes in music, but we share dislikes.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 26, 2005 4:14 PM