BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: THE RISING (2002)
1) Lonesome Day; 2) Into The Fire; 3) Waitin' On A Sunny Day; 4) Nothing Man; 5) Countin' On A Miracle; 6) Empty Sky; 7) Worlds Apart; 8) Let's Be Friends; 9) Further On (Up The Road); 10) The Fuse; 11) Mary's Place; 12) You're Missing; 13) The Rising; 14) Paradise; 15) My City Of Ruins.
The very idea of a 70-minute long album, primarily inspired by the events of 9/11 and intended to serve as mass spiritual therapy for the aftermath of 9/11, makes me feel somewhat uneasy. There is no getting away from the fact that Bruce Springsteen is the living patron saint of the entire New Jersey area and its immediate surroundings, including New York City — and to ignore 9/11 in his music would have been regarded as a personal insult by most of the people living there and as a bewildering puzzle by the musical press; after all, Springsteen is no Dylan, and occasional confounding of people's expectations is as far as he is willing to go. And yet, an entire album? Isn't this too much of a temptation to play God — something that Bruce had come pretty close to, but never quite nailed at least a few times in his career?
And maybe the biggest problem with The Rising is also its most predictable problem: striving, as usual, to reach the largest possible audience, the Boss trivializes the issues at stake and addresses them on a very simple (and safe) gut level. There has been a terrible tragedy. Many people have died, and even more people lost their loved ones. The grief is almost unbearable and makes you question the very meaning of your existence and whether it makes sense to go on at all. But, as we have always done before, we will pull through, rebuild our lives from scratch, if necessary, and hold on to our beliefs and ideals because there's nothing wrong with them. This is what The Rising is all about — no less, no more. There is not the slightest attempt here to put the whole thing into a larger context: other than, perhaps, a very thickly veiled lyrical hint at the distance between East and West (ʽWorlds Apartʼ, Bruce's not-half-bad attempt at introducing Near Eastern motives into his songwriting), 9/11 is basically just pictured as an ordinary natural disaster. Like an earthquake or something. Well... nobody said it ain't permissible, right? But then... looks a bit cheap. But then again... since when has Bruce Springsteen been all that expensive, anyway? Everything is just the way it should be.
The best thing about The Rising, however, is not that it gives us any new, deep, revealing insights into the tragedy of 9/11 or an amazing spiritual instruction on how to overcome the aftershock of that particular tragedy — the best thing is that, somehow, the tragedy inspired Springsteen into writing his most consistent, powerful, memorable, and just plain interesting set of songs in almost two decades, and also one that he has not been able to top ever since, despite the steady rate of new studio output in the 21st century. These songs are bombastic, but convincingly so, thanks to the definitive return of The E Street Band into the studio; emotionally straightforward and (usually) not-too-subtle, but diverse and hard-hitting; rhythmically plodding in the same 4/4 midtempo most of the time, and yet still somehow experimental for the man's standards, due, among other things, to the heavy (and thoughtful) use of strings.
Quite a few of the songs here were actually written well before 9/11, but Bruce specifically took the ones that could be directly or indirectly related to the event (ʽMy City Of Ruinsʼ was originally written about Asbury Park, but whaddaya know) and hammered them together into this coherent requiem/oratorio for E Street Band and orchestra, where everything seems organic, and expressions of sorrow, sympathy, and temporary despair regularly alternate with tremendously life-asserting songs — without a single hint of corniness, I should admit.
Some of the sorrowful songs sound like outtakes from the «adult contemporary» era: ʽNothing Manʼ, for instance, with its hazy aura, would have fit in very well on Tunnel Of Love. But when this stuff comes in small dosages, is well produced and armed with a good vocal hook, it works much more efficiently than anything on his lazy breakup record. ʽEmpty Skyʼ is simple, direct, Biblical, and best distinguished by its hoarse, almost distorted harmonica line, Bruce's local version of the Archangel's trumpet. But maybe the saddest song here is really ʽThe Fuseʼ, a deeply atypical, unconventional, almost psychedelic song for Bruce — hip-hop beats, samples, «cosmic» guitars, by the end it becomes more ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ than good old Springsteen, and the lyrics are genuinely disturbing, alternating between wedding night imagery and "blood moon risin' in a sky of black dust", all delivered in a voice that has been intentionally stripped from all emotion, like in a Robert Bresson movie. This is one of those unique Springsteen songs, like ʽAdam Raised A Cainʼ, that shows to what sort of scary psychological depths the man can really go when he lets out his demons instead of keeping them on a commercial leash.
Fortunately, there's much to laud here even about the simple, unadorned, easily accessible stuff. Like ʽWaitin' On A Sunny Dayʼ, whose instantly memorable riff is entrusted to strings (for the first time in Springsteen history, right?) and thrusts a good chunk of sunny hope right in your face before taking it away once again with the next song (ʽNothing Manʼ). Or the ultra-traditionally titled ʽFurther On (Up The Road)ʼ, which has nothing to do with the old Bobby Bland blues song except for also being bluesy in essence, but promises redemption in a gritty, sweaty, grimy way, through brutal riffage and «dirty» harmonica playing. Or ʽMary's Placeʼ, which shows some resemblance to ʽRosalitaʼ — a happy, exuberant romp in the face of all disasters and calamities, well supported by Clarence's sax (and a whole brass section in the background), even if the protagonist of ʽRosalitaʼ is visibly older now, almost by thirty years. But he still remembers Sam Cooke with fondness, and wants to invoke a bit of his name to help brighten up your day.
As we get to the anthemic title track, the ground has been tilled well enough to make it seem like a gargantuan climax to the whole oratorio — an echo is laid on Bruce's voice to make it sky-high, the background singers woo-hoo like well-trained angels, the lyrics are Catholic to exhaustion, and for those of you who want more rock than soul, the Boss plays a shrill, distorted, ecstatic, Neil Young-ian guitar solo, so that basically just covers everything. And just in case you didn't get it first time around, you will be prompted to rise up one more time, during the long, bombastic prayer of ʽMy City Of Ruinsʼ. (The first prayer of the album was already recited near the beginning, with ʽInto The Fireʼ, which should probably be made into the International Fireman Anthem or something — it just begs to).
It's all simple and a wee bit manipulative, but it works, and at least it's all for a good cause. In fact, maybe the best thing about The Rising is that it is not tightly bound to its historical context — even the lyrics are crafted thoughtfully, so that they do not have to be associated with any particular details. It's just a very good rock record about tragedy and recuperation in general, taking away Bruce's usual emphasis on «aggrandizing the little man» and replacing it with something even more sweeping and grandiose — the collective experience of tragedy and the collective hope for a rebirth. Amusing, but The Boss never really did anything like this before; certainly he did not have to assume the position of a newly elected military leader, gathering up the remains of his forces after a crushing defeat. And he must be given credit for carrying out the operation in good taste, without descending into simplistic jingoism and paying as much attention to the musical backbones and arrangements of the songs as he does to the lyrics and vocals. All in all, The Rising still remains one of his best albums — no small feat for a rock artist thirty years into his career — and with every new year that takes us farther away from 9/11 and dissipates its contextual relevance, it seems to sound better and better to me. Thumbs on up for The Rising, although we probably should not be thanking Osama bin Laden for rekindling the creative fires of a nearly-has-been rock visionary. The price may have been just a wee bit too steep.