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Bored in the U.S.A.

Longtime fans of Bruce Springsteen may not agree, but the great anthem writer has traded in those wings for some very pedestrian wheels in Devils & Dust.

Published May 15, 2005

A quick rock experiment:

Get your copy of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run and listen to the title track and Thunder Road. Be sure to sing along and bust out some air drums on the Thunder Road roll before the instrumental finale.

Now, go to the music stash you hide from guests (you know you have one) and put on Bat Out of Hell. Skip the rollicking beginning and listen from where the piano starts.

The main difference: Meat Loaf was intentionally over the top.

Springsteen's kinship with the likes of Mr. Loaf is what makes his best music so much fun, but he has never acknowledged how silly and theatrical those songs were ("Just wrap your legs 'round these velvet rims and strap your hands across my engines"?). Instead, he has increasingly presented himself as an authentic Everyman who weaves honest tales about regular folks.

On his latest CD, Devils & Dust, this pose seems more contrived than ever. His regular folks are by now nothing more than stock characters in Bruce Springsteen songs, and his stripped-down music is anonymously pleasant, even boring.

You can tell right away that Devils & Dust is a serious project because all of the pictures are fuzzy and sepia-toned. Also, the back liner notes say one song, Reno, "contains some adult imagery."

The album - in DualDisc format, which has a CD on one side and a DVD on the other - also includes five filmed performances that are fitting examples of the CD's faux authenticity. We don't see Springsteen playing at a cozy concert; instead, he's filmed sitting and playing alone in a bleak, faded home that looks like a set from the movie Seven.

If the music were good enough, we wouldn't need staged seriousness to convince us it's good. Anyway, the songs aren't nearly as weighty as the presentation indicates.

Built on rich, up-close production by Brendan O'Brien, Devils & Dust alternates between lightly strummed or finger-picked character studies: a man visiting a prostitute in Reno, a black child who escapes the city for the mythical Midwest in Black Cowboys - and up-tempo roots rockers.

Springsteen favors his "serious voice" on the slower songs, a sonorous drawl that gives Matamoros Banks - about an immigrant who never made it across the border - the extra emotional heft it emphatically doesn't need. Silver Palomino could be a sweet reminder of a child's favorite hoofed pal, but becomes a monotonous dirge dedicated to a dead mother.

The songs with head-bobbing energy are pocked with generic sentiments that slide right off. "Now you got no reason to trust me, my confidence is a little rusty," the narrator in All the Way Home warns before pledging, "But if you don't feel like bein' alone baby, I could walk you all the way home." Long Time Comin' is more specific, but also more fantastical: "I'm riding hard carryin' a catch of roses and a fresh map that I made/Tonight I'm gonna get birth naked and bury my old soul and dance on its grave."

For all the quiet and acoustics, Devils & Dust is as over the top and unreal as The River.

To be fair, Springsteen isn't pretending to sing about his reality the way he did on 1982's Nebraska, his first Serious Album. But the earnestness, the morose baritone, the "personal introductions" to each DVD performance - why insist on these signals of importance if he's just spinning some myths (fairly unremarkable ones, at that)?

In seeming to believe his exaggerated persona and music instead of winking at them, Springsteen by now just comes across - to a 25-year-old who didn't grow up on the Cult of Bruce - as pretentious.

Devils & Dust works when Springsteen abandons the pretense and steps out of character. All I'm Thinkin' About and Maria's Bed are light and bouncy, and he brings out a hidden sweetness in reaching to the very top of his register and into a tentative, scratchy falsetto. But then it's back to the over-the-hill boxers and songs about Jesus.

It makes you wish the Boss would put on a puffy shirt or find paradise by the dashboard light or dabble in mock operatic opuses - anything to make him fun again. Grade: C

[Last modified May 12, 2005, 10:14:04]

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