Springsteen remains rock's most convincing savior.
"I been out in the desert/ Just doin' my time/ Searching through the dust/ Looking for a sign."
Bruce Springsteen's career long ago settled into a predictable pattern: Grand statements built for hollering in big arenas precede minimalist albums seemingly composed upon a porch swing as the ghost of Woody Guthrie creaks the floorboards to keep time.
The vast American landscape of Born in the U.S.A. led to the deeply personal Tunnel of Love. The River, broad and sweeping, gave way to the cracked wheat and doomed characters of Nebraska.
In that same vein The Rising yields to Devils & Dust, a record destined to sell fewer copies than its predecessor even though it's better in almost every conceivable way.
The Rising, Springsteen's official post-9/11 record, was overtly ambitious-a hard-rocking attempt to come to grips with the greatest tragedy in American history. Where that album strained to create a sense of community, Dust focuses on individuals living in a world that challenges them at every turn.
"I admired him for attempting The Rising," says Anthony DeCurtis, a University of Pennsylvania professor and longtime music critic for Rolling Stone, The New York Times and Tracks. "Those were his people, his audience, who died in those towers. So he'd earned that right. The new disc is more modest in its ambition. But I think it achieves what it sets out to do. In that sense it's a far more satisfying record."
The reviews of Dust are predictably effusive.
The Times praises for not just reporting on his characters, but reaching inside them.
Rolling Stone gushes a four-and-a-half-star review.
Locally, Dan DeLuca says Springsteen "succeeds in leavening despair with hope."
But critical praise won't drive album sales. And even Springsteen's promotional efforts demonstrate lower commercial expectations.
For The Rising he made a highly publicized appearance on Nightline, occupying a seat across from Ted Koppel normally reserved for heads of state, foreign dignitaries and political power players.
For Dust, it's NPR-a seat from which he is less likely to convert new listeners than preach to his existing choir.
"This one," concludes DeCurtis, "is for believers."
In a sense there could be no higher praise.
DeCurtis-whose new book In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work (out June 30), includes a lengthy interview with Springsteen-remembers a story Little Steven Van Zandt told many years ago.
"John Lennon had just been murdered, and the E Street Band had a show to do. Little Steven called Bruce and said, 'I guess we're canceling the show.'"
Springsteen told him otherwise. "Of course we're doing the show," he said. "Tonight, of all nights, we're going out there."