n 1984, Bruce Springsteen released a little album called Born in the USA, which catapulted him from ordinary rock star into media phenomenon. After the excesses of that period, Springsteen retreated. 1987's Tunnel of Love was a frank portrait of a marriage falling apart. The end of the '80s brought further withdrawal, as Springsteen sacked his longtime colleagues, the legendary E Street Band. In 1991, he released two albums simultaneously. Neither made much of an impact, even among his fans, most of whom sorely missed the E Streeters especially on the lackluster tour that followed. And 1995's Ghost of Tom Joad was really a folk album, a horse-drawn carriage next to the '57 Chevy that was Born to Run.
Despite all this, Springsteen remained astonishingly prominent. He won an Academy Award and Grammy for the theme song to the movie Philadelphia. He reunited with the E Street Band for 1995's Greatest Hits, and a track from that album, after being used in Jerry Maguire, became one of his biggest hits ever. In 1999, to celebrate his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he reunited with the band, embarking on a worldwide tour to critical and popular acclaim. Three-hour marathon shows were the norm; the band pulled out songs not played in years and others never before played live.
And yet the Boss hailed by many as one of rock's greatest poets was treading water. He was living in the "glory days" of his past, with only a few tentative steps forward. The band's re-formation helped him write "Land of Hope and Dreams," which closed almost all of the reunion shows; the shooting of Amadou Diallo inspired him to write "American Skin (41 Shots)." But he needed a push to come up with enough new material for an album. September 11 was that catalyst.
Springsteen opened the "Tribute to Heroes" telethon, singing "My City of Ruins." The song written late in 2000 about the deterioration of Asbury Park, N.J., where he grew up fit the moment perfectly. What most fans did not know was that Springsteen had written another song for the show, but decided at the last minute that it was not ready. That song, "Into the Fire," appears on The Rising, a farewell from those left behind by the firemen who ran in the twin towers:
In contrast to the stark verses, though, the chorus is a prayer that we learn something from these heroes:
This shift is present on most of the album's songs. As Springsteen puts it, "The verses are the blues, the chorus is the gospel."
What Springsteen has done brilliantly, therefore, is capture the two near-opposite feelings of most Americans in the days and weeks after September 11: on the one hand, a deep grief for the lives lost; on the other, a belief that we will "rise up." All of the songs are tinged with despair, but there is something else something far less than optimism or hope, but more akin to, well, faith: faith that we can join together and struggle through difficult times, that we can "rise up." As Springsteen told the New York Times, "I've been at my best when I'm connected to what's going on in the world outside." And in this album he certainly is thus connected.
Some of the songs are directly tied to September 11. For instance, the song "Paradise" a solo performance that recalls Dire Straits's "Brothers in Arms" and which is the starkest and perhaps most gripping track on the album is about a suicide bombing. On most tracks, however, Springsteen takes the feelings of September 11 and universalizes them, addressing the sorrow of anyone who has lost a loved one. The lyrics of "Lonesome Day" are about losing a loved one, whether or not she died in a car accident or a plane crashing into the Pentagon or simply left. The song "Nothing Man," for instance, could easily be read as the emotions of the firemen who didn't die but Springsteen wrote it in 1994.
The reunited E Street Band has been a huge part of Springsteen's own rejuvenation, yet the album has a different sound than fans might expect. Drummer Max Weinberg pounds as forcefully as ever, but pianist Roy Bittan and organist Danny Federici are less prominent. The band features a three-guitar attack, in which Bruce is joined by Steve van Zandt and Nils Lofgren. (This is, one might suspect, a result of new producer Brendan O'Brien, known for working with harder rock bands like Rage against the Machine and Pearl Jam.) Big Man Clarence Clemons has few moments in the sun, but that shows good judgment, as most of the songs do not lend themselves to soaring sax solos. In many places, a string section replaces the keyboards and horns; for the most part, they add a color and warmth that elevate the songs.
In many ways, this album is more satisfying than most of the artistic response to September 11. Anthems like "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" and "Freedom" are just that: songs that shout a lot but say little. Springsteen has always found his heroes in everyday events, and the firefighters and policemen of 9/11 are the archetypes of people he has written about for thirty years. The universality of their heroism allows him to write something deeper, more meaningful, than Toby Keith or Paul McCartney did.
None of this is to say the album is flawless. Tracks like "Mary's Place" (a surefire concert favorite) and "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" are undercut by joining downbeat lyrics with upbeat rhythms a mistake also made on "Born in the USA." The acoustic "My City of Ruins" played for the telethon is more powerful than the full-band version on the album. The forgettable "Worlds Apart," to which several Pakistani musicians contribute, recounts an interethnic love affair. "The Fuse" is about making a desperate physical connection in the face of emotional despair but doesn't work. "Let's Be Friends" is, depending on how you read it, an attempt to ease ethnic tensions in the wake of 9/11 or an attempt to get a girl in the sack. Its bouncy rhythm might make it appealing to a certain audience, but it's the weakest track on the album although it's got some competition from the Bon Jovi-ish "Counting on a Miracle." While the strings are, on the whole, a welcome addition, they are overused on some songs. Overall, though, The Rising is the best album Springsteen has made since Tunnel of Love and an album likely to reach Born in the USA-size audiences.
Bruce Springsteen and Sony are well aware of the massive potential this album has. The publicity push started with releasing four tracks in advance over the Internet. It includes numerous interviews and television appearances and a nationwide barnstorming tour. While Born in the USA may well have been swept up in the "morning in America" sentiment of the Reagan years, The Rising is equally likely to capture the hearts and minds of an America still shaken by the events of last fall as well as an America ready to move beyond boy bands and Britney Spears. More importantly, on a substantive level, it is a work of which Bruce Springsteen can, and ought to, be proud.