Picks and Pans Review: Bruce Springsteen

UPDATED 05/09/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/09/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT

FOLK-ROCK

Devils & Dust
CRITIC'S CHOICE
[STARS 3.5]

Looking back on the Boss's 32-year career, it has been a tale of two Springsteens. One is the stadium rocker backed by the formidable E Street Band who can incite fans to chant "Bruuuuce!" with the promise of "Born to Run" or "Born in the U.S.A." The other is the intimate singer-songwriter heard on Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad who just needs an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and a stool. The latter, less iconic Springsteen is the one keeping it raw and rootsy on the evocative mood piece Devils & Dust. After reuniting with the E Street Band for his last CD, 2002's arena-ready The Rising, and a mammoth tour that was heavy on the hits, Springsteen has pulled a total 180, much as he did by following up the rousing thunder of Born in the U.S.A. with the quiet beauty of Tunnel of Love. There are hardly any E Streeters to be found on the new disc, only Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, and Soozie Tyrell singing backup on four tracks (with Tyrell doubling on fiddle on two cuts). The stripped-down approach puts the focus squarely on Springsteen on heartland rockers like "All the Way Home," which he originally wrote for Southside Johnny in 1991, and dusty ballads like "Silver Palomino" that are more country than most country music these days. The spare settings also lend an immediacy to these story songs, some of which were actually written before he began work on The Rising. On the plaintive "Reno," one of several tracks employing a string section and horns, he relates a man's encounter with a prostitute in such graphic detail that you will swear you were in the room with them. And on the haunting title tune, he conveys the conflicted emotions of a soldier on the front lines of the Iraq war. "I got my finger on the trigger/But I don't know who to trust," he opens. By the time the harmonica solo kicks in, Springsteen has hit another bull's-eye.

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