March 9, 2006

Songs of Our Ghost Towns

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For all the “Great American Novels” of the 20th century, one story in particular remains tragically absent. The industrial cities of the Northeast, now crowded with vacant factories and empty warehouses, are crippled by economic contraction. They have become our generation’s ghost towns, but no one has yet written the story of how blue-collar workers struggled in the fallout of America’s industrial collapse.

Bruce Springsteen’s latest record reminds you that, although these stories remain unwritten, they did not go unsung. The songs on Devils and Dust call up deferred plans and desparate circumstance with simple, straightforward arrangements and lyrics. Here, as on Nebraska (a similarly sparse, sharp album), Springsteen himself remains a mystery. Rather than his own songs, he sings those of desparate, impoverished people: ex-convicts, migrant workers, illegal immigrants and barflies.

Springsteen avoids both covers and traditional folk/blues lyrical structures in this record. There is little hope on this album, but it is saturated in nostalgia. Often, the barren present moment is just a springboard to the past, as in “Reno,” where a man buying sex has past love opened up like a fresh wound, while the sun “bloodied the sky, and sliced through hotel blinds.” The song is graceful, but Springsteen is not afraid to call up graphic, explicit imagery.

Springsteen invests discarded moments and people with serene beauty elsewhere too. In “Matamoros Banks,” the story of a man who drowns crossing the Mexican border, Springsteen sings “the turtles eat the skin from your eyes, so they lay open to the stars,” which comes across as both beautiful and grotesque.

Like Elvis, Springsteen went through an overblown middle career which threw dozens of elements into every song. Unlike Elvis, he survived this middle phase and returned to a subtler style. Devils and Dust is undeniably affected by his middle career but has lost that era’s saccharine qualities. He is now able to orchestrate many elements without losing control of them. Where “Born in the USA” felt like a fabricated, synthetic pop clich