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Following the commercial clout of his post- 9/1 1-themed "The Rising" album and a subsequent uber-successful world tour with his E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen might have reasonably been expected to offer up another broad, populist and anthemic record in rapid succession.Instead, he's turned inward, brought the scale down to the more introspective and poetic, and created a stark masterpiece that ranks with the best work of a remarkable 35-year career.

"Devils & Dust," out today, is already being compared to two other stripped-down records that sought to "put the brakes on" during stages of his career when Springsteen feared becoming a caricature of himself, or being lost in the throes of passion-soaked arena rock.

"Nebraska" followed "The River" and predated "Born in the U.S.A.," at a time when the artist was torn between his just-arriving superstar status and the dark, subterranean spiritual failings that would be borne out by the Reagan years. For many, the unflinching, desolate character studies that comprise that record -- tracked wholly solo in Springsteen's bedroom on a cheap four-track cassette recorder -- comprise the man's best work.

"The Ghost of Tom Joad," released in the mid-'90s, was just as dark, and again, concentrated on deep flaws in the American character -- ones that Springsteen clearly felt would lead to spiritual bankruptcy, sooner rather than later.

"Devils & Dust" is, like both "Nebraska" and "Tom Joad," essentially a solo Springsteen affair, and it too is centered around characters whose potentially beautiful selves have been subverted by a soulless world, whose capacity for good has been undercut by ill-fated decisions and whose ideals have given way to hard-won truths.

But that's where the similarities end. Both "Nebraska" and "Tom Joad" are low-key affairs with extremely effective, if fairly monodynamic, structures. A frustrating hopelessness is at the core of both records, and it is borne out by the unforgiving nature of the desolate, folk-based compositions. "Devils & Dust" offers a much broader scope; its characters are equally conflicted, but its imagery is deeper and its ability to bring a subtle depth of musical arrangement to bear on simple structures is both uncanny and all but unparalleled in modern rock music.

Springsteen's relationship with producer Brendan O'Brien, which began with "The Rising," has been an incredibly beneficial one that has helped the man posit his music in the here and now, and given his familiar tropes -- both musical and lyrical -- a gorgeous atmosphere within which to unfold. O'Brien helped make "The Rising" a profound record with his ability to get inside Springsteen's music in a fashion unlike any other producer the man has worked with.

But it's not just the production that makes "Devils" one of Springsteen's most moving records. It's the way he's able to recombine familiar imagery and harmonic architecture into something new. You know these songs intimately after one listen; 20 listens in, you're finding that the relationship is deepening.

What makes Springsteen one of the greatest American artists in the history of popular song is his ability to infuse his music with a sense of grace, a desire to unearth truths and the belief that doing so matters immensely, both to himself and his audience.

Opening with the title song, Springsteen embodies the carcass of a soldier in Iraq, but this is no case of mere vitriol or idealistic grandstanding. Rather, here, the narrator ponders just what he's losing by being there. He's a cog in a wheel, the faith of empty sloganeering having evaporated like the hollow rhetoric that encouraged it, his soul perhaps irredeemably compromised. "Fear's a powerful thing/It'll turn your heart black, you can trust/take your god-filled soul/and fill it with devils and dust," the narrator sings, Springsteen's harp exploding in a blend of fury, disgust and compassion that punctuates the predicament.

It's powerful because it's universal; Springsteen is examining a dearth of compassion at the heart of the modern American dream and making it resonate in deeply human terms.

It gets darker from here, with only occasional flashes of hard-earned light making their way through the heavy velvet curtains. In "Reno" -- a song whose sexual references earned the album an "explicit content" warning -- a man relates an encounter with a prostitute with a bluntness that underscores the empty place where his heart once was. Masterfully, the songwriter tells the story not with what he's placed in the lyric, but what he's left out of it; you know this guy is lost, that he's driven his stolen car about as far as it'll go, and that something happened to strip him of the community offered by healthy love, family and friendship.

If there's one theme to the album, it can be found in the questions posed between the lines of this song: "Why? How did this person end up where he is? And what does his failure of character say about all of us?"

"Jesus Was an Only Son" is both the most heartbreakingly beautiful song on the record and one of the finest the man has ever penned. At a time when religious posturing has become both dangerous and prominent, Springsteen revisits the old story to paint a stirring portrait of a mother's love, and attempts to find meaning in her pain. He sings of "a loss that can never be replaced/A destination that can never be reached/A light you'll never find in another's face/A sea whose distance cannot be breached," and the hair-raising melody is drenched in pathos. The imagery is biblical, but the story is really one of compassion for a parent who has had to bury their child.

It ends with one of the strongest, most effortless stanzas of Springsteen's career, as his subtle blend of guitars, bass, keyboards and drums is punctuated by the sorrowful gospel backing vocals of Patti Scialfa, Soozie Tyrell and Lisa Lowell.

"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.' "

There are no duds here, and the record's flow skillfully balances country-laced, downbeat acoustic performances with more ornate ensemble pieces. Unlike "Joad," which made no concessions to the listener's need for variety and pacing, "Devils" is both an amazing collection of songs and an album with a pleasing emotional arc and a sense of unfolding.

Most importantly, it offers a deeply moving study of an artist whose belief in man's capacity for redemption is mirrored by an indelible assurance that music can be a vehicle for that redemption. Springsteen isn't just the best at what he does; he's still pretty much the only one who does what he does.

Devils & Dust
Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)