In 2005, Bruce Springsteen wasn’t in need of a comeback, but that’s how I viewed Devils & Dust. More accurately, this was the first of his albums that established him — for me — as a relevant contemporary artist.
I was familiar with his great work from previous decades but the only Springsteen album I’d bought upon release — The Rising — had disappointed me. Devils & Dust, on the other hand, inspired me.
Closest in sound and spirit to Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils & Dust is a largely acoustic record about people in pain: Boys who have lost their mothers to illness or drugs, a soldier in Iraq, a boxer who brawls in back alleys after giving up his career over a fix, an immigrant who dies making the border crossing.
But the album also features a pair of graceful love songs and, in ‘All I’m Thinkin’ About,’ a track Springsteen sings in a whispery falsetto that sometimes fails on him. It’s a delicate and vulnerable moment that adds to the intimacy of this powerful album.
The song ‘Reno’ drew a lot of attention for its graphic description of a widower’s visit to a hooker. Starbucks even refused to carry the album in part because of these lyrics. I guess “two-fifty up the ass” doesn’t go well with a Caramel Brulée Latte.
But setting the controversy aside, this is one of the most powerful songs I’ve ever heard. Springsteen so beautifully captures the loneliness of this man who pays for affection in order to recreate lost moments with his wife. Just listen to how the music swells during the middle section when he recalls the past, and how it deflates when we go back to the room.
She had your ankles, I felt filled with grace.
“Two hundred dollars straight in,
Two-fifty up the ass,” she smiled and said.
She unbuckled my belt, pulled back her hair,
And sat in front of me on the bed.
She said, “Honey how’s that feel, do you want me to go slow?”
My eyes drifted out the window, down to the road below.
I felt my stomach tighten. The sun bloodied the sky
And sliced through the hotel blinds. I closed my eyes.
Sunlight on the Amatitlan, sunlight streaming thru your hair.
In the Valle de dos Rios, smell of mock orange filled the air.
We rode with the vaqueros, down into cool rivers of green.
I was sure the work and that smile coming out ‘neath your hat
Was all I’d ever need.
Somehow all you ever need’s, never really quite enough you know.
You and I, Maria, we learned it’s so.
She slipped me out of her mouth, “You’re ready,” she said.
She took off her bra and panties, wet her finger, slipped it inside her,
And crawled over me on the bed.
She poured me another whisky,
Said, “Here’s to the best you ever had.”
We laughed and made a toast.
It wasn’t the best I ever had,
Not even close.