The latter-day Springsteen, when he really has something to say, says it quietly -- a fact that's confirmed by the stripped-down, purposefully dusty ambience of this much-anticipated follow-up to The Rising
. While not as sparse as, say, Nebraska
or Tom Joad, Devils & Dust
's underlying simplicity -- in arrangements, lyric stance, and production -- makes it more like those albums than the bulk of Springsteen's full-band outings. That attitude is driven home early on by the country-steeped "All the Way Home," powered by a two-step rhythm and a wailing harmonica and made human by the plainspoken infatuation of the protagonist. The more downbeat "Reno," on which Springsteen is accompanied by a spare slide guitar and a subtle swell of strings, is equally rooted in southern culture, albeit more of the woozy, Kris Kristofferson
stripe. Lyrically, the disc's most moving passages strike a similar chord, from the contemplative inner-city allegory "Black Cowboys" -- which pits a hard-edged narrative against a whisper-soft canvas of acoustic guitar and organ -- to the tumbleweed-dry dirge "The Hitter." Those songs, like Bruce's best work, tell the tales of individuals rather than movements, but there's no disputing the populist political waves that lap along the album's edges, cresting on the title track, which paints a clear picture of an ideological enemy without naming a single name. Springsteen employs that less-is-more approach again and again on Devils & Dust,
never overstating, never overreaching -- and by doing so, he reaches his highest creative pinnacle in years.