I've been happily busy," says Bruce Springsteen, taking a break from rehearsals for his spring tour. "When you're not working a lot, there is always one reason: You don't have the songs. But I have music to sing."
Springsteen will release the spare new studio album Devils and Dust on April 26th and launch a solo acoustic tour that same week. "It's the opposite of playing with the E Street Band," he says of his second-ever solo outing.
Recorded without the E Streeters, Devils combines whispery acoustic story songs with stripped-bare, folk-and-country-inflected rock tunes. In many ways, Springsteen says, the album is a sequel to 1995's hushed The Ghost of Tom Joad, which inspired his first solo tour. "I wrote a lot of this music after those shows, when I'd go back to my hotel room," he remembers. "I still had my voice, because I hadn't sung over a rock band all night. I'd go home and make up my stories."
Springsteen recorded the basic tracks with producer Brendan O'Brien on bass and Steve Jordan (who's worked with Keith Richards and Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa) on drums, with recent E Street Band addition Soozie Tyrell overdubbing fiddle parts. At various points, the album employs a string section, horns, organ and electric guitar. But it all feels stark and sepia-toned. "I wanted to keep it raw," Springsteen says. "I think that's what's slipped out of a lot of modern country music, that certain sort of chill-to-the-bone sound."
As with Joad, many of the songs are set in the Southwest, with Spanish phrases studding the lyrics. "The lives of the new migrant population were interesting stories for me," Springsteen says. "I was just interested in the way the West and the Southwest feel in my imagination."
Springsteen had most of these tunes nearly finished by 1997 but put them aside in favor of a 1999 reunion tour with the E Street Band, which led to 2002's The Rising. The inspiration for reviving the solo material, Springsteen says, was a new song, "Devils and Dust," that he wrote in 2003 at the start of the Iraq War. ("I've got my finger on the trigger/But I don't know who to trust," it begins.) "It is basically a song about a soldier's point of view in Iraq," Springsteen says. "But it kind of opens up to a lot of other interpretations."
Springsteen tried recording the title track as both an angry rock song and an acoustic ballad, but it took the help of producer O'Brien — who also worked on The Rising — to bridge the gap. "Brendan found something that put it in the middle, where it picks up a little instrumental beef as it goes," says Springsteen. O'Brien took a similar approach to the rest of the album, helping Springsteen ditch Joad's low-fi sound and minimal arrangements for a more fleshed-out approach.
Among the standout tracks is "Reno," a disquieting ballad about a man's visit to a prostitute — with an explicit reference to anal sex that won the album an "adult imagery" warning on its back cover. ("It's just what felt right for the song," Springsteen says.) "Long Time Comin'" is an exuberant, rocking love song; "All I'm Thinkin' About" is a buoyant, falsetto-laden lark; and "All the Way Home" is a soul ballad that Springsteen wrote for a 1991 Southside Johnny album, revisited here as a country-rock shuffle.
As he prepared for the Devils tour, Springsteen considered taking a small band on the road. "Nils [Lofgren] and some other folks came in for rehearsals to give me a sense of if I wanted to go with something bigger," he says. "But what tends to be dramatic is either the full band or you onstage by yourself. Playing alone creates a sort of drama and intimacy for the audience: They know it's just them and just you."
The forty-plus-date tour — which hits venues as large as 5,000-seaters — will focus on the new album, along with material from Joad and 1982's Nebraska, and stripped-down takes on songs from The Rising. "It's not about acoustic versions of my hits — that's what's not going to happen," says Springsteen, who will also perform on an April 23rd episode of VHI's Storytellers. "I want to forewarn potential ticket buyers: I'm not going to be playing an acoustic version of 'Thunder Road.'"
Springsteen last broke out his hits on last fall's Vote for Change Tour, followed by solo sets at rallies for John Kerry. What did he take away from his stint in partisan politics? "I've tried not to think about it," Springsteen says. "But it was an experience that I'm glad I put myself into. There was a lot of idealism out there — I took a lot of that with me."
Meanwhile, Springsteen has already written songs that he says could form the basis for another E Street Band album and tour. "I've got some [rock] things, but I haven't heard them back yet," he says. "You've always got to hear them back to know it they're good or not. I'm not sure if it's the very next thing. But I certainly imagine we'll be doing that sooner rather than later."
This story is from the April 21st, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.