I associate “Devil’s Arcade” with “Devils & Dust” — released two years earlier — and not just because of the use of “Devil” in its title and its reference to “thick desert dust” that a soldier experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan. Both songs are about trying to maintain your faith when confronted with the horrors of war. But whereas in “Devils & Dust,” this is seen as a losing battle, here, I think, Springsteen holds out some hope.
It’s the longest track on Springsteen’s Magic album, and its orchestral sound makes it sound like an epic statement.
The devil’s arcade is, of course, war, and when we meet the soldier, in the first verse, he’s retrieving his gun (in order to return to war, one presumes) and spending “nervous evenings” making love, before having to leave.
“Somebody made a bet, somebody paid,” Springsteen sings in the second verse. In other words, somebody in a position of power made a decision, and this soldier is paying the price, suffering some kind of traumatic injury (“your body caved”).
Then narrative then shifts to a hospital, where the soldier plays poker with another soldier, and “lies adrift,” recovering.
After a tumultuous instrumental break, the soldier hears a voice. Maybe it’s a dream, or maybe it’s the lover from the first verse, visiting him. He’s told “don’t worry” and has a vision of recovery: a “house on a quiet street, a home for the brave/A glorious kingdom with the sun on your face.” Armed with “something like faith,” he waits for “the touch of your fingers” and “the beat of your heart.”
He fixates on “beat of your heart,” repeating the phrase seven times before imagining “the slow burning away of the bitter fires of the devil’s arcade.” In other words, maybe the battle can be won, and the devil’s fires will burn away. Maybe there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
More tumultuous instrumentation follows, to end a song that is as melodramatic as “Devils & Dust” was matter-of-fact and stoic.
Background facts: Springsteen released “Devil’s Arcade” on his 2007 album, Magic. According to Brucebase, he performed it 73 times in 2007 and 2008 (in other words, exclusively on The Magic Tour).
On each of the 70 days leading up to Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday (on Sept. 23, 2019), NJArts.net will do a post on one of The Boss’ best songs of the last 30 years. We’re starting with No. 70 and working our way up. For more on the project, click here.
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The first word of the song is the key: Remember.
The song is the stream-of-conscience thoughts of a soldier, his love, and maybe
his brother in arms.
Flashing scenes of memories from before, during, and after the violence of war.
It’s an evil game, a devils’ arcade, played by those in power, playing with the lives of people they’ll never know, and who they don’t care about!
Bruce wonderfully evokes a dreamy, spooky, aura of love and horror.
One of His many songs with multiple or ambiguous interpretations.
One of His best, least known, songs.