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Good Old Devil

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1 October 2014 by Nick Sullivan
This Kind Of World

Adherents of God the god tend to blame a lot of bad things on the Devil the fallen angel, but it is well to take their opinions with a grain of salt. It must be kept in mind that the Devil, for all his legendary verbal skill, is at a serious debating disadvantage, since he is able to speak only through the mouths of infidels, whose opinions God has commanded one to ignore. This makes the dialogue a bit unbalanced, and can even encourage skepticism.

Still, where there’s smoke, steam, lava and perpetual howling, surely there’s fire. The Devil has been accused of too much not to be guilty of some of it. Anyway, he may be unpopular, may be fallen, may be just an angel, may have an eternal marketing minus called Hell attached to his brand, but you have to give him credit. So far he’s overcome those disadvantages and proven unexpectedly resilient. In somebody else, his track record would be called inspiring. A gritty performance. It is striking that after thousands of years of unstinting effort, God — who is by and large omnipotent — hasn’t really made any progress at all towards getting rid of him.

The staff assume that when Walt says that the Devil egged him on and made him do it in the details, as he often does, he’s speaking metaphorically, but it’s hard to tell. There are many recesses in the playground of Walt’s mind. For some of us, though, the role of the Devil has gradually evolved. The scary traditional Horned Tormentor figure that used to haunt our nights and shadow our days now mainly just haunts our nights. The appeal of even the more elegant and spiritually inclined Prince of Darkness styling has faded as well, too subtle for the Age of Marvel.

The Devil’s current primary role, that of Literary Convenience, might seem a bit of a come-down, but it’s a steady gig and these days you can’t be choosy. Anyway, it’s always been at least a sideline. Chaucer and Shakespeare could hardly get through to the end of a story without the Devil horning in somewhere, and modern storytellers are more than lazy enough to do the same. And as true as that statement is, it’s a thousand times truer in songwriting.

This would be a good place to illustrate my point by listing some of the many famous songs in which the Devil plays a prominent part, and I could easily beguile the happy hour by doing so. However, with only the small space between here and the bottom of the monitor screen remaining to be filled, I’ll deny myself that pleasure and move on to discussing today’s song, This Kind of World, which proudly follows in the footsteps of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and many other leading writers.

Thanks to my great artistic integrity, which I rarely mention, I abhor overblown “interpretations” of song lyrics, or any suggestion of a pretentious straining for significance in what is, after all, just a song. Yes, of course we sense in This Kind of World echoes of Revelations, of Dante, of Nostradamus; and to be sure, we can’t help discerning amongst the tumult and weltganscherenheit of the song’s implacable crescendi a spiritual cri de coeur that echoes like a cry from the heart through the silent-sounding Simonian streets and Dobbin’s desolated rows, but to go further is unnecessary.

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