Yet when the regional writer leaves familiar ground, a certain peculiarity often materializes in his writing, perhaps even in the manner of his thought and comportment. The effect is to turn inward, to rely no longer on the smells, the sights and the sounds of the place by which he once took definition, to rely on his private heart alone. In my experience as a reader, such endeavors have met with either ringing vindication or total and unvitiated failure. My favorite Steinbeck novel, for example, takes for its setting seaside Connecticut, over 3,000 miles from the author’s hometown. Meanwhile, Thoreau’s least impressive writing features the Concord native out on the white sand shores of Cape Cod. The fiction of dislocation often assumes two distinct, antipodean forms: self-probing introspection or flat, oracular journalism.
Perhaps the same applies to popular music. In the wake of the 1960s, lyricism has emerged as a genuine form of literature and popular musicians as a genuine breed of writer. Perhaps, therefore, we can relate our observations of dislocated writers to their more musical companions, the bards and skalds of the new populace. In his most recent album, Bruce Springsteen shirks the refinery towers of the New Jersey skyline for the scarred earth and sandy creeks of the Southwestern plains. Indeed, “Devils and Dust” is replete with stark and piercing images of Dust Bowl America. In the title track, we hear phrases such as “Well I dreamed of you last night / in a field of blood and stone.” In “Black Cowboys,” Springsteen whispers, “Over the rutted hills of Oklahoma, the red sun slipped and was gone, / the moon rose and stripped the earth to its bone.” While Springsteen is faithful in his lyrics to the geographical splendors of the Southwest, the album, his first acoustic effort in a decade, is not mired in but elevated by its setting. As always, Springsteen’s characters-the marginalized and oppressed-both succumb to and transcend their circumstances. As always, his are the universal themes of hope, despair, struggle and survival.
And perhaps more than any of his previous albums, the spare, acoustic strumming of “Devils and Dust” befits his subject matter. A bevy of folk and country instruments with which Springsteen has been experimenting throughout the past 10 years arise on these Brendan O’Brien-produced tracks. The lap steel and glass slide feature prominently in Springsteen’s nimble and prodding guitar leads. O’Brien himself occasionally plays the tambora and even the sitar, while the Nashville String Machine provides many of the string arrangements. No more than a single member of the original E Street Band (Danny Federici) plays on the album, though recent additions such as violinist Soozie Tyrell and Springsteen’s wife, background vocalist Patti Scialfa, make cameo appearances.
The seeds for the album were sown nearly a decade ago, when Springsteen launched his first-ever solo acoustic tour. In an interview with The Associated Press, he recalled, “I was so excited after playing on that tour, I’d get off the stage and go write, then I put those songs on the shelf for a while, until I had a chance to revisit them.” But not all of the songs have sat so long on the shelf; Springsteen penned the title track in the early days of the Iraq war. He remarked, “It works as a metaphor for all the music underneath it, the individual stories of people wrestling with their demons. … It’s about people working through their confusions, sometimes well and sometimes tragically.”
Springsteen’s latest poetic venture, to my great relief, is not expressly political. He does not proselytize. The problems at the center of the album are too universal and omnipresent for partisan rendering. They are the problems of faith and salvation, the problems of death and despair. Their landscape is the human heart as much as it is the Southwestern plains. If Springsteen has been displaced, a first-time listener would be hard-pressed to tell. He has rediscovered his voice afresh, not in the smoke stacks and sardined cities of New Jersey, but in the mesquite canyons and dark arroyos of the human spirit.