Bruce Springsteen’s songs have chronicled, even nurtured, the evolution of the American working class going on 30 years now. It seems only fitting, then, that as the shock, grief and sorrow of Sept. 11 gives way to defiance, anger and resolve, it’s his voice that rings out, a triumph of hope and faith over cynicism and regret. Perhaps it’s a voice we need now more than ever.
On the morning of Sept. 11, Springsteen recalls running to a bridge over the Jersey side, the Magic Rat staring into the fires of Jungleland, his city in ruins. One can imagine he knew even then that The Rising was coming.
Come it has, and it brings the return of the E Street Band, back with their old schoolboy swagger, but tempered slightly by age and circumstance. Producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Matthew Sweet, Rage Against the Machine) joins a band reunited in the studio after an 18-year hiatus. Like Robert Duvall and Tom Cruise’s give and take in the film Days of Thunder, O’Brien seems to know when to nudge the band into new corners of their musical psyche and when to let them rock on their own terms. Sonically, the album succeeds by exploring these new areas while constantly referencing some of the finest moments in the Springsteen canon: The wailing harmonica of “Empty Sky” recalls the mournful dirge “Downbound Train” from Springsteen’s decade-defining Born in the USA, “Worlds Apart” is steeped in the flavors of the Middle East, and “Nothing Man” seems rooted in the same acoustic simplicity of 1988’s “Tunnel of Love.”
This is Springsteen in his most familiar territory, navigating a winding road scarred by wrongdoing, struggle and loss. He seems to know that what we’ve lost is not only our pre-9/11 everything, but also that small window of grace and humanity that shone so brightly in the months following. We may never have felt closer and more united than we did on the morning of Sept. 12, but in the past months, that too has been lost, and The Rising echoes that loss as much as any other:
Around here, everybody acts the same
Around here, everybody acts like nothing’s changed
The sky’s still, the same unbelievable blue
In this conflicted landscape the new widow yearns, “I want a kiss from your lips/I want an eye for an eye,” a chilling reminder how closely love and sorrow sleep with the yearning for revenge. In these fragments we meet a firefighter who saves one life only to turn back into the inferno toward others in need–toward his own grave.
May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love
This simple prayer may well be the emotional centerpiece of The Rising, and if there’s any disappointment to be found here, it’s certainly a relative one. For example, the full-band version of “My City of Ruins,” a rousing gospel anthem that closes the album, can’t compete with the stripped-down acoustic version that Springsteen devastated us with on last fall’s “Tribute To Heroes” telecast. That moment was pure beauty, guts and grace, an absolute necessity of that moment in time; it’s easy to forgive the band for being unable to duplicate it in the studio.
These are, without question, E Street songs, but like every American, Springsteen and his bandmates are different beings now. While the rollicking “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” recalls the joy and romp of his classic anthem, “Out in the Street,” from 1980’s The River, one senses that something is being held back. When Springsteen sings “everything will be OK” we believe him, but this is the hope found rising from smoldering rubble, and that has a very different scent.
This is an elegy for American innocence.
Out of the shadows of buildings that no longer reach skyward, Springsteen has–once again–stepped forward as America’s musical poet laureate. He’s reminded us that together, there’s nothing we can’t rebuild. It’s with the help of firefighters, police officers and rescue workers that such rebuilding occurs; it’s with the help of playwrights, filmmakers and musicians that we are reminded why we rebuild at all.
Pete Townsend once referred to Bruce Springsteen as “our fearless leader.”
Indeed, and thankfully so.