Thursday, April 28, 2005

Growing Older Gracefully

Two momentous events happened this week, and neither had anything to do with the impending general election (more of that in an imminent post). First, a new Bruce Springsteen album was released. For me at least, this was inevitably a major event, made all the more exciting by the advance whispers that Devils and Dust would see a return to the stark acoustic narratives of Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad. Sony had kept the album tightly under wraps, pompously refusing to send out advance promos to the media and instead inviting everyone to one of those highly irritating listening parties that seem to be the current means of preventing pre-release internet leaks. Surprisingly enough, I was not important enough to attend. Despite the contractual restrictions apparently placed on the media, some mixed reports did seep out over the weekend, including a snobby, patronising and uncharacteristically off the mark review from Andy Gill in the Independent, baffled indifference from Alexis Petridis in the Guardian and an enthusiastic thumbs up from the consistently hopeless Observer Music Monthly. So far, the signs were not especially promising. Still, an exceptional article in the Observer review from Sean O' Hagan managed to put the album in its wider context, and was bold enough to finally suggest that Tom Joad may be the quintessential Springsteen album (it is).

The first thing to note about D&D is that the notion that it is the conclusion of a trilogy begun with Nebraska is only half the story. It does indeed contain some of Springsteen's most evocative storytelling, including the songs composed during the Tom Joad acoustic tour in 1996. Yet, it also contains a small cluster of roots rockers, a couple of which venture into something approaching new territory. If anything, it is closer in sound to 'Tunnel Of Love', the solo project in which Springsteen steadfastly refused to provide a chest-beating follow up to 'Born In The USA', although it's by no means as nakedly personal as that album - it largely retains the character-based storytelling approach of the acoustic albums. This is no bad thing, as Sprinsteen remains the best storyteller in popular music.

Secondly, much like The Rising before it, it's a bit of a mixed bag. It contains some great songs, but it also contains a couple of major turkeys. It doesn't share its predecessor's bloated length (it's surprisingly concise), but it does suffer from similar errors of judgement over tracklisting. The rockier tracks are mostly clustered in the first half, rendering the second half a bit of a chore, despite the quality of the songs. Comparisons with the best Springsteen albums may render it a minor work, but such a judgement may prove to be harsh - because it is still an incisive, mature and frequently moving piece of work.

Sadly, the only thing most writers seem to have noticed is the track 'Reno', which, gasp! shock! horror!, makes explicit reference to oral and anal sex! With a prostitute! It's in character of course, and is actually a great deal more subtle than your average chart pop hit (and significantly less offensive). That it's actually a powerful and affecting song contrasting the isolation and desperation of purchased sex with a deeper love existing only in distant memory seems to have escaped the critics' attention. Still, at least they were bothering to read the lyric sheet whilst they supped champagne at the listening party.

Some other tracks follow familiar Tom Joad territory - 'Matamoras Banks' is another song about immigrants at borders, and basically repeats the formula of 'The Line'. It's empathetic and sensitive, but not as devastating as the earlier song. 'Black Cowboys' is a classic Springsteen family narrative, which sees the slow ebb of 'the ties that bind', with its young protagonist fleeing on a train. It's wistful, delicate and composed with considered clarity. 'The Hitter' tells a boxer's story with Springsteen's characteristic blend of the elegance of poetry and the descriptive detail of prose. He sounds appropriately ragged and worn on this exquisite mini-epic. 'Jesus Was An Only Son' is a faith song where Springsteen has previously been more allusive (dismissed as 'questionable Christian piffle' by Andy Gill in The Independent, although I found it personal and introspective rather than preachy and confrontational). 'Silver Palomino' is wonderful, a song about a horse that acts as a metaphor for two young boys trying to come to terms with their mother's death.

Then there are the peculiar departures - 'Maria's Bed' is rootsy and uplifting, bolstered considerably by Soozy Tyrell's violin and Patti Scialfa's gospel-inspired chanting. This is one of a few tracks where Springsteen affects a different vocal approach, moving into an unusually high register and sounding something akin to Ryan Adams doing an impression of Neil Young. It's striking and irresistible. Equally superb is 'Long Time Comin', which takes the dogged rock blueprint of 'Lonesome Day' and 'Counting On A Miracle' and adds a welcome country lilt through some marvellous slide guitar work. It is also blessed with one of Springsteen's best lyrics in ages - as direct as it is sublime, the final verse particularly beautiful ('Out 'neath the arms of Cassiopeia/Where the sword of Orion swoops/It's me and you Rosie, cracklin' like crossed wires/And you breathin' in your sleep'). Less successful is 'All The Way Home', a generic rocker marred further by the plodding thud of a drum machine, a device that seems to be more frequent in Springsteen songs with Brendan O'Brien on production duties. It is the most thoroughly unremarkable Springsteen song since the days of 'Human Touch' and 'Lucky Town' - it could have sat comfortably on those albums, and in fact, a cursory glance at the sleevenotes does indeed date the song back to 1991. Why Springsteen decided to revisit such a lightweight piece of work now is anybody's guess.

Then there is a batch of songs caught somewhat uncomfortably between the two camps. 'All That I'm Thinkin' About' is yet another car song (but it's not as entertaining as 'Pink Cadillac'). It feels like it should have a Chuck Berry-esque chug to it but it's actually quite restrained, and the falsetto vocal sound more uncomfortable here than on 'Maria's Bed'. The title track opens the album in a worthy and dignified fashion - a lyric inspired by soldiers in Iraq being something we might expect from Bruce Springsteen in 2005. I was impressed by this track on first listen, as it builds from a subtle, introspective opening into a much bigger sound. On further listening, its impact is dulled, however. The chord sequence and melody are slightly predictable, the lyrics more benign platitudes than anything really incisive, and Brendan O'Brien's production is also at its most intrusive here. 'Leah' is a straightforward acoustic love song, but with a bigger arrangement and imposing chorus. It makes for a welcome, more poppy diversion from some of the weightier material here.

At its best, 'Devils and Dust' is substantial and involving - at its worst, it is somewhat inconsequential. This makes for a slightly uncomfortable mix, but there are certainly many more highs than lows, and Springsteen's desire to find new ways of presenting familiar ideas is admirable. His place in the pantheon of classic songwriters already assured, Springsteen is perhaps becoming more adventurous in his maturity.

The second major event was a secret Sleater-Kinney gig (billed as Slutty Kitty) at the tiny Barfly venue in Camden Town. This proved to be an absolute treat. I can't really offer too informed a review - much of the set was new material (new album 'The Woods', recorded with Dave Fridmann, is released at the end of the month) that I was hearing for the first time. I'm also only familiar with part of the Sleater-Kinney back catalogue, being something of a Johnny-come-lately to this most remarkable of bands. Like most music obsessives, and all weblog writers, my passion can occasionally drift into self-righteousness, so it's important to check myself every so often by admitting my past mistakes. I used to hate Sleater-Kinney - Corin Tucker's harsh vibrato used to make me wince, and I struggled to find much in the way of nuance or melody in the few songs I'd heard. Frankly, I was very, very wrong. Tonight, as they were at the Mean Fiddler last time I saw them, Sleater-Kinney were kinetic, thrilling and adventurous. The sound they achieve with two guitars and drums is colossal, much of it based around the visceral brilliance of Janet Weiss' drumming. The interplay of vocal lines and guitars is increasingly dextrous, without being overly ponderous or pretentious.

What struck me most at the Barfly is the way in which Sleater-Kinney effortlessly combine the angularity and confrontation of the post-punk movement with more historical influences. 'One Beat' betrayed an increasing engagement with blues, improv and heavy rock, and 'The Woods' promises to further these preoccupations, with what sounded here like more dynamic and sustained results. The Beefheart-esque improv explosion towards the end may have been a bit too much, but it didn't sound too unhinged - the band always sounded locked together and in control. They reward the small but energised crowd (who warmly received the new material) with a brilliant three song encore.

They are also brilliant performers - Corin contorting her face as she bellows frequently unintelligible lyrics, Carrie bounding around the stage with relentless energy, Janet's hair flailing all over the place as she pounds out her intricate backbeats. They perform with such gusto that they seem like a fresh, new proposition - it's astounding that they have been performing for over ten years now. They have lost none of their primacy or urgency. It's a powerful combination - and this is a band that should not be missed - catch them when they return to Europe in the summer for festivals, and hopefully a few more UK gigs.

Oh, and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds are playing Alexandra Palace in August, a mere stone's throw from my home, and a great use for some of that recently acquired Birthday money! There are some advantages to getting older!

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