This isn't exactly a full-blown review of Bruce's new album Devils and Dust, which comes out next week. I've only listened to the whole thing once, under less-than-optimal circumstances (riding BART and then walking along the Embarcadero on my way to last night's Giants game) and format (MP3s).
I confess I have less advance excitement over this release than I have for Bruce in a long time. The early word hasn't been negative ... Rolling Stone predictably gave it a good review ... but the descriptions just weren't inspiring (Tom Joad II, where Tom Joad was Nebraska II) and feel like the rule of lowered expectations, since Nebraska was one of the three best albums Bruce ever made, Tom Joad was decent, and the new one? If it's quality is relative to Joad the way that album was to Nebraska, it's not going to be much.
And then there's the little matter of me being shut out (thus far!) of tickets for the upcoming concert at the Paramount, which isn't making me very happy.
And finally, when I started to play the album on my Karma, I forgot to turn off shuffle play, so I heard the songs in the wrong order.
So this isn't a full-blown review of Devils and Dust.
Having stated all the caveats ... while the sound is reminiscent of Joad, on some songs it also recalls Tunnel of Love. Since the latter is another of Bruce's Three Greatest Albums, that would seem to be a good thing, but the truth is, when an entire album reminds you of the albums of the past, that's not a good thing at all, is it? It's treading water at best, recycling at worst.
Then there's the problem with the melodies. There aren't any. I'm exaggerating a bit, and again with the caveats about the ambiance within which I listened, but hardly any of the melodies stand out on first listen, and once I realized this, I started paying closer attention to that aspect of the songs, and it just seemed like every melody was created to fit the vocal range of Johnny Cash. The songs sounded like fiction put to music, and I suspect the lyrics are fine and lovely, as Bruce's lyrics often are, and that means the Rolling Stoners who practice the English Major School of Rock Criticism will fall all over themselves praising the lyric sheet without noticing that the music is stagnant.
I hope I'm wrong, of course, and I look forward to hearing the album again in a more conducive listening environment, and then hearing the various cool mixes on the official release (which will include a 5.1 surround mix, I believe), and having certain songs rise to the top of my short attention span and joining all my other faves in my Bruce Hall of Fame. But that first listen wasn't exactly earth-shaking.
Let's be honest. Bruce's last great album was released 18 years ago (which means he did pretty good by the standards of Steven's Theory of Rock Star Aging Patterns ... he was 38 at the time). You could make a fine single-disc compilation of his 90s work that would stand up against his best, the same as you could with 60s or 70s Elvis, but in his prime, every album Bruce made compared well with his best. The Rising was his best album since Tunnel of Love, but that only made it his, what, 8th-best album? There is no real reason to expect that a new Bruce Springsteen release will be an all-time classic ... Bob Dylan can do it, Bruce is capable, but I don't expect it. He remains the greatest of live performers, he has never put out a completely crummy album (even Human Touch had "I Wish I Were Blind"), I look forward to growing old with his music. But on first listen, Devils and Dust looks to be one of the most inconsequential releases of his career. I'll check back again after I've spent some time with the official release.