“Devils & Dust” is a powerful anti-war song of an intensely psychological nature. It’s about a soldier — fighting, presumably, in Iraq or Afghanistan — who isn’t just trying to survive, but trying to save his own soul.
In the first verse, he’s in some kind of battle situation, and talking to a fellow soldier, Bobbie. But he’s not sure if he can trust him. The war has gotten to Bobbie. “When I look into your eyes, there’s just devils and dust,” he sings.
In the first chorus, he says he believes he has “God on his side,” but wonders, “What if what you do to survive kills the things you love?”
Fear, he sings, “can turn your heart black,” he sings. Presumably, that’s what he believes has happened to Bobbie.
In the second verse, he dreams of Bobbie dying. I take this as a symbolic death: Part of Bobbie has died.
In the third verse … despite his attempt to “take a righteous stand,” he admits that “faith just ain’t enough” and that “when I look inside my heart, there’s just devils and dust.” In other words, he’s lost the internal battle.
It isn’t just Bobbie. And it isn’t just the situation they’re in. War has changed him, presumably forever, and not for the better.
Look at Springsteen’s face on the album cover, above, or in the video, below (in which he performs the song alone, in an empty theater). He’s deep within himself, having a hard time even looking at the camera. It’s as if he’s come face to face with this uncomfortable truth, and just wants to hide.
Background facts: Springsteen released “Devils & Dust” on his 2005 album of that name. It was also released as the album’s first single, rising to the No. 72 position on Billboard magazine’s pop chart.
According to Brucebase, he performed it 97 times between 2005 and 2013, as well as at a private concert for President Obama and members of Obama’s staff at the White House in 2017.
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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