Who is Bruce Springsteen?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Jan. 27 2009 10:15 AM

Who Is Bruce Springsteen?

The true legacy of America's last rock star.

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Every now and again, the majestic simpleton breaks character, and winks; and about as often, he works his way back to subtlety and a human scale and cuts a pretty great song or album. From the post-Landau period, the harrowing masterpiece Nebraskais the only record you can push on the nonbelievers, followed by the grossly underrated Tunnel of Love. The Oscar-winning "Streets of Philadelphia," an account of a man with AIDS slowly fading into his own living ghost, is the equal of any song he's written. In 1995 Springsteen produced The Ghost of Tom Joad, the culmination of a 15-year obsession with Woody Guthrie, whose biography he had been handed the night after Reagan defeated Carter, in 1980. The album is stronger than its popular reception might lead one to believe. "Across the Border" and "Galveston Bay" are lovely and understated and bring home the fact that Springsteen—a man who wrote monster hits for acts as diverse as Manfred Mann, the Pointer Sisters, and Patti Smith—remains a skilled melodist. Nonetheless, the record is a little distant in its sympathies, as if Springsteen had thumbed through back issues of The Utne Reader before sitting down to compose.

His new album, Devils & Dust, is a sequel to The Ghost of Tom Joad. It's mostly acoustic and intimate in scale; but Springsteen appears to have taken criticism of Tom Joad to heart, and Devils & Dust is warmer, and in patches, fully up-tempo. It's hard to describe how good the good songs are. The title song is classic Springsteen—"a dirty wind's blowing," and a young soldier may "kill the things he loves" to survive. And on "Black Cowboys," Springsteen unites a visionary concision of detail with long lines in a way that channels William Blake:

Come the fall the rain flooded these homes, here in Ezekiel's valley of dry bones, it fell hard and dark to the ground. It fell without a sound. Lynette took up with a man whose business was the boulevard, whose smile was fixed in a face that was never off guard.

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Though initially signed as a folkie, Springsteen has never been much of a technician on the acoustic guitar, compared to, say, the infinitely nimble Richard Thompson. But on Devils & Dust there's a new comfort with the instrument; and he decorates many of the songs with a lovely, understated filigree. Ah, but how hard the lapses in taste! The strings and vocal choruses used to punch up the sound are—what other word is there?—corny. Next to, say, Iron and Wine, Devils & Dust too often sounds like a chain store selling faux Americana bric-a-brac. One always suspects with Springsteen that, in addition to a blonde Telecaster and "the Big Man," a focus group lies close at hand. The album is suspiciously tuned in to two recent trends, the exploding population of the Arizona and New Mexico exurbs; and the growing religiosity of the country as a whole. Devils & Dust is very South by Southwest—Mary is now Maria, there's a lot of mesquite and scrub pine, and one song even comes with a handy key to its regional terminology (Mustaneros: Mustangers; Pradera: Prairie; Riata: Rope). It's also crammed with Biblical imagery, from a modern re-telling of the story of Leah to Christ's final solacing of his mother. The first is a silly throwaway; the second is a fetching, Dylan-inspired hymn that ends with the teasing rumination, "Well Jesus kissed his mother's hands/ Whispered, 'Mother, still your tears,/ For remember the soul of the universe/ Willed a world and it appeared.' "

The high watermark for Springsteen commercially, of course, was 1984, when "Born in the USA" somehow caught both the feelings of social dislocation and the euphoric jingoism of the Reagan era. Landau's mythic creation, the blue-collar, rock 'n' roll naif, has never held such broad appeal since. In recent years, Springsteen has settled into a pattern of selling a couple million albums (Born in the USA sold 15 million) to the Bruce die-hards. A clue to who these people are can be found in Springsteen's evolving persona, which is no longer as structured around his own working-class roots. On a short DV film on the CD's flip side, Springsteen says he tries to "disappear" into the voices of the migrant workers and ghetto prisoners whose stories make up Devils & Dust: "What would they do, what wouldn't they do, how would they behave in this circumstance, the rhythm of their speech, that's sort of where the music comes in." With Landau nowhere in evidence (he's thanked, but excluded from the album's formal credits), it is up to Springsteen alone to impersonate the voices of the dispossessed. The pupil has finally surpassed the master.

Nonetheless, here I am, starting to hum its tunes, growing a little devil's patch, hitting the gym, and adding a distant heartland twang to my speech. (My wife, meanwhile, curls up on the sofa in shame.) You old bullshitter, you got me again.

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.