I imagine many listeners will be scandalized by "Reno," the third track on Bruce Springsteen's latest record, "Devils & Dust," on which he sings in jarringly explicit language of an encounter with a prostitute -- earning the singer the first "adult imagery" warning sticker of his three-decade career. Hearing the line "200 straight in, 250 up the ass, she smiled and said" from the lips of the Boss is sure to at least raise some eyebrows. Personally, I'm a good deal more scandalized by the wobbly falsetto he attempts on "All I'm Thinkin' About." It could, I suppose, have worked as a subversive undermining of the air of wholesome masculinity he has embodied with such consistency. Instead, it comes across as a very poor aesthetic decision by an artist who should, by now, know his strengths and avoid his weaknesses.
With "Devils & Dust," Springsteen has once again moved away from the engineered-for-transcendence redemption rock he returned to for "The Rising," and he has once again dispensed with the E Street Band, playing most of the instruments on the record himself. The solo acoustic guitar at the opening might lead you to think that Springsteen was revisiting the spare, bleak world of "Nebraska" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad." You'd be half right, but he's actually trudged into an uncomfortable, somewhat soggy middle ground, muddying the simply structured, folky songs with stray bits of cheesy '80s production, and weakly leavening the bleakness with occasional halfhearted attempts at uplift. For all its thematic unity, focusing, in Springsteen's words, on people "in some spiritual struggle between the worst of themselves and the best of themselves," the record feels oddly wishy-washy, unfocused and wayward.
Then there's the Dylan problem. Whether it's a conscious decision or just the natural evolution of an aging voice, Springsteen's rasping, nasal singing on this record often comes off as straight-up mimicry of Dylan. And the comparison is not flattering. In the realm of arena-ready, fist-pumping, roughly bombastic rock, Springsteen has few peers, but put him head to head with Dylan in the category of wordy, acoustic songs and he comes across as trite, sentimental and reflexively, simplistically rugged.
None of this is to say that "Devils & Dust" is a bad record. Springsteen's level of craft remains consistently high, and although there aren't many hummable melodies here, the songs are beautifully shaped and phrased. Most of all, the Boss remains a powerfully charismatic musical presence, carrying even mediocre material to success on the sheer force of his personality. This is far from a classic, but it's also hard not to enjoy.