"Well, Jesus kissed his mother's hands / Whispered, 'Mother, still your tears / For remember the soul of the universe / Willed a world and it appeared.'" — from "Jesus Was An Only Son"
The first time I saw Bruce Springsteen in concert, 31 years ago in a small theater in Norfolk, Virginia, I might've called it a "religious experience." Springsteen and the E Street Band put on a 4½-hour show—yes, four and a half hours—that was part rock concert, part theater … and all spectacle. I've seen The Boss 15 times since, and he is, in my opinion, the best live gig in the history of rock 'n' roll.
Part of that is because of his personality. He's energetic, intelligent, funny—and a great storyteller. I've often thought he'd make a terrific preacher—if he ever got a firm grasp on the gospel. He's always included spiritual imagery in his songwriting. He seems to understand the concepts of sin, the cross, confession and redemption. And yet he often misses the mark theologically—sometimes just barely, and sometimes almost blasphemously.
With his new CD, Devils & Dust, it would seem that the Rev. Mr. Springsteen has fully arrived, albeit in the guise of a folk singer. His most spiritual album to date—eight of the 12 cuts include religious references—Devils & Dust is haunting and beautiful, chock full of songs of hope, love, and redemption as well as tales of sin, brokenness, and confession. Sounds an awful lot like the real world, eh?
The album is Springsteen's third folk album, following 1982's brooding Nebraska and 1995's slightly more buoyant The Ghost of Tom Joad. But Devils & Dust is easily the most melodic—and upbeat—of the three.
The spiritual imagery begins right away with the title cut, which would've fit nicely with the haunting ballads of 1980's The River. The second verse begins, "I got God on my side." Like many of Springsteen's folk songs, including those here, "Devils & Dust" isn't autobiographical, but a character sketch. Here, it's apparently a U.S. soldier in Iraq, who laments, "I got my finger on the trigger, but I don't know who to trust." And, "Fear's a dangerous thing / It can turn your heart black, you can trust / It'll take your God-filled soul / Fill it with devils and dust."
Up next is "All the Way Home," a twangy rocker that reads like a confessional: "I know what it's like to have failed, baby / With the whole world lookin' on." Then another confession of sorts in "Reno," a somewhat explicit ballad about a tryst with a prostitute. And yet the song ends with the narrator saying the experience was hardly satisfying—perhaps because of guilt?
The next song, "Long Time Comin'," includes a Springsteen rarity—a profanity. But it's in the context of regret and repentance as he—or whoever the character is here—vows to his family that he doesn't want to repeat the sins of past generations: "I ain't gonna (bleep) it up this time."
The spiritual imagery—some reverent, some not—continues through "Black Cowboys" ("Ezekiel's valley of dry bones"), "Maria's Bed" (comparing a lover's bed to "the upper room" and "sweet salvation"), "Leah" ("Tonight I feel the light, I say the prayer / I open the door, I climb the stairs"), and several others.
But nowhere is the imagery more powerful, or more reverent, than on "Jesus Was an Only Son," where the lyrics capture the CD's most prominent themes of faith and family—in this case, the bond between mother and child. The song would have been perfect for last year's The Passion of the Christ: Songs, a multi-artist (P.O.D., Lauryn Hill, MxPx, Steven Curtis Chapman, and more) collection inspired by the film.
Like Passion director Mel Gibson, Springsteen has Catholic roots and an appreciation for Marian imagery—prevalent in the movie and in this song, where Springsteen paints Mary's relationship with Jesus with sweetness and light:
As he walked up Calvary Hill
His mother walking beside him
In the path where his blood spilled
Jesus was an only son
In the hills of Nazareth
As he lay reading the Psalms of David
At his mother's feet
The song ends with these words: "Well, Jesus kissed his mother's hands / Whispered, 'Mother, still your tears / For remember the soul of the universe / Willed a world and it appeared.'"
The song is beautiful, and as reverent and worshipful as anything you'll hear on a Christian album. But make no mistake: Devils & Dust is not a Christian album, nor would Springsteen claim as much. But he did tell The New York Times that the project is quite intentionally spiritual.
"In every song on this record, somebody's in some spiritual struggle between the worst of themselves and the best of themselves, and everybody comes out in a slightly different place," he said. "That thread runs through the record, and it's what gives the record its grounding in the spirit."
Springsteen also told the Times that although he's "not a churchgoer," his childhood experience in Catholic schools has made him realize, over time, "that my music is filled with Catholic imagery. It's not a negative thing. There was a powerful world of potent imagery that became alive and vital and vibrant. … As I got older, I got less defensive about it. I thought, I've inherited this particular landscape and I can build it into something of my own."
And so he does, as well as he ever has, with Devils & Dust.
Unless specified clearly, we are not implying whether this artist is or is not a Christian. The views expressed are simply the author's. For a more complete description of our Glimpses of God articles, click here
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