Is Bruce Springsteen a Catholic songwriter?
There’s a strong argument to be made that he is. Catholic images can be found on many of his albums, especially his early ones, and at times he seems obsessed with the search for redemption, a favorite theme for Catholic artists from Caravaggio to Graham Greene. But Springsteen’s albums have rarely been explicitly religious, and he has admitted in interviews that he has tried to keep his childhood faith at a distance.
That is until Devils & Dust. Devils is Springsteen’s most religious album to date. It reflects the concerns and anxieties of a man who, as he has grown older, has started asking the big questions that faith promises answers to. What’s surprising is that his faith has strengthened the songs, not weakened them. Usually when a songwriter sings about Jesus it’s a sure sign that he’s jumped the shark. But Springsteen is best when he writes about what he knows, and faith has allowed him to enter into the lives of his characters, giving his songs an empathetic power that others have lacked.
Springsteen spoke about his Catholic faith, and how it influenced his latest album, in a recent interview with the New York Times. “I’m not a churchgoer,” he said, “but I realized, as time passes, 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, and was both very frightening and held out the promise of ecstasies and paradise. There was this incredible internal landscape that they created in you?K.As I got older, I got a lot less defensive about it. I thought, I’ve inherited this particular landscape and I can build it into something of my own.”
Reviews of Devils & Dust have compared it to The Ghost of Tom Joad, another pared-down, acoustic album in which Springsteen inhabited a series of depressed, downtrodden characters. Yet Devils is a better album, largely because it is built on the “inherited landscape” of faith. Tom Joad was a noble effort, but it didn’t work as an album. As Stephen Metcalf recently pointed out on Slate, the record is a “little distant in its sympathies, as if Springsteen had thumbed through back issues of The Utne Reader before sitting down to compose.”
Though a number of the songs were written at the same time as Joad, and are similarly “distant in their sympathies” Devils & Dust does not suffer from its predecessor’s studied reportorial approach. On songs like the title track, faith has given Springsteen a new dimension-he can explore-with-his characters, in this case a soldier confronting the evils of war. “I got God on my side,” he sings. “I’m just trying to survive / What if what you do to survive / Kills the things you love.” On Long Time Coming he sings of a father who prays that he’ll raise his kids right, and that their “sins” would be their own.
And then there’s Jesus Was an Only Son, the best song on the album and the best piece of religious music I’ve heard in years. The song, which tells of Jesus’s relationship with Mary, made me think about what it must have been like to live in the Renaissance, when the best artists of the day brought their talent to bear on the Gospel. Springsteen’s song is not only wonderfully melodic, it is theologically profound. “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.”
“You have to be constantly writing from your own inner core.” Springsteen says on the DVD on the flip side of Devils & Dust.” “Whether in New York City, Jersey shore, or set out West, you’re still writing from the essential core of who you are. That has to be a place in every song or the song dies.” As Springsteen has grown older, he has had to find new and creative ways to connect with the lives of his characters. He’s now a multimillionaire, living on a horse farm in Jersey; it’s hard for him to sing about kids living in the South Bronx without sounding woefully inauthentic, if not phony. Fortunately for listeners though, his inescapable Catholicity has provided him a language with which he can connect with the other members of the body of Christ.