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Rising to the Occasion

 

Bruce Springsteen: The Rising

Columbia, 2002

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: August 11, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

How, exactly, does one judge The Rising?

By now, unless you've spent the last couple of months in a cave in Tora Bora, you know that Bruce Springsteen's new record, his first with his near-legendary E Street Band since Born in the U.S.A., is heavily influenced by the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001. So how do we address it? To judge it simply for what it is, on its most basic level -- a rock and roll record -- seems somehow callous, or an avoidance of larger issues: What, exactly, is the appropriate musical way to commemorate or comment upon such events? Does such an attempt smack of exploitation? Does a rock and roll song, or even a handful of really good ones, risk trivializing its subject matter?

Ultimately, of course, The Rising is just that -- a rock record -- and given rock's long and impressive history of social and political commentary, and Springsteen's own history as perhaps rock's most versatile arena-rocker and blue-collar troubadour, its attempt to address the events of Sept. 11 makes a certain rational and emotional sense.

And to his credit, Springsteen rises to the task admirably. As unsettling as the idea of a Sept. 11 album feels, The Rising proves a stirring document of loss, faith and redemption, and a pretty damn good rock and roll record to boot. Springsteen had decided to reunite and record with the E Street Band before Sept. 11 happened, but in hindsight his decision to address these events in the context of the band's rousingly populist raucousness seems like a stroke of genius. Had he elected to go the subdued, mourning route of a bleak folk album a la Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen likely would have failed to provide his audience with what they wanted and needed from him: a declaration of defiant hope and the determination to carry on in the face of great sadness and loss. As bands like U2 and performers like Springsteen himself have proven over the years, the broad brush-strokes of arena-friendly rock prove a fertile and effective background for the Big Issues. Only through the straight-ahead bashing of Max Weinberg, the slash-and burn guitar heroics of Little Steven Van Zant and Nils Lofgren and yes, even the exuberant sax of Clarence Clemmons could Springsteen have hoped to scrap his way through the emotional complexity of the attacks to a place of acceptance, defiance and deliverance.

Which is not to say that The Rising simply bangs its way through the subject matter that informs most of its songs. Indeed, traces of Springsteen's grass-roots folk persona shine through in the quieter numbers that nicely, and necessarily, offset the brasher numbers. The most potent example comes in "Into the Fire," the first song Springsteen wrote after the 11th and the one song that most directly addresses its aftermath. It starts slowly, plaintively, rooted in Springsteen's blues-inflected delivery and Lofgren's understated dobro, moving solemnly through its unabashedly stirring convocation ("May your strength give us strength/ may your faith give us faith/ may your hope give us hope/ may your love give us love") before the hammer drops and the E Street Band grafts muscle and sinew on the song's skeletal frame. Guests Soozie Tyrell and Jane Scarpantoni flesh out the arrangement with effective violin and cello work, respectively, and the whole gestalt turns the chorus's incantation into a rousing gospel chant. It's admittedly a blatant James Cameron-esque for the heartstrings, but it works; only the kind of people who kick dogs and steal candy from babies could find fault with the song's visceral uplift.

"Into the Fire" and its cousins -- the forlorn ballad "Nothing Man" (about a surviving rescue worker's guilt and despair), the wistful "You're Missing" and the brief and evocative "Empty Sky" -- lay the album's foundations of grief and loss. But it's Springsteen's more overt rockers, most of them cast in a musical mold most similar to latter albums like Born in the U.S.A. and Human Touch, that form The Rising's emotional core, alchemically transmuting pain, loneliness and despair into a firm resolve to find salvation in the face of the unspeakable. "The Rising," the album's declaration of purpose, exhorts its listeners to "come on up to the rising," an invitation to rise above, to rebuild, to move upwards in contrast to the tumbling of the Twin Towers and the plummeting of airplanes; its "li li li" refrain a stubborn sub-vocal reclaiming of an era when such wordless singalongs didn't seem as frivolous.

Likewise, "Lonesome Day" marries a pensive rumination of loneliness with a buoyant arrangement, with bright strings filling in the parts where the discomfiting keyboards of, say, "Glory Days" might have gone. And "Worlds Apart," another highlight, achieves the seemingly impossible feat of recasting guitar-rocker Springsteen as a world-beat integrationist along the lines of Sting or Peter Gabriel, as it transforms the Islamic chanting of guest Asif Ali Khan and his group into a stadium-strength singalong of surprising power.

Granted, not everything about The Rising is effective or affecting. Rocking numbers like "Further On (Up the Road)", "Countin' On A Miracle" and "Waitin' On A Sunny Day," while serviceable, offer distracting musical and lyrical clichés; on Lucky Town, Born in the U.S.A. or even The River, they'd be less glaring, but here, for all their simple charm and thematic cohesion, they stick out like an Al-Qaeda Mullah at a strip club. "Mary's Place," a rather blatant throwback to the horn-drenched glories of the Born to Run era, seems out of place for all its breezy enthusiasm. And "My City of Ruins" -- written long before September 11, about Springsteen's dilapidated stomping grounds of Asbury Park, New Jersey -- ends things on an elegiac note that's wholly appropriate, complete with another gospel-tinged singalong, but one that -- especially paired with the spare "Paradise" -- drains off the fiery affirmation of "The Rising." It's hard to think of another way The Rising could have ended, but the sense of mourning, while again completely appropriate, nonetheless feels disappointing.

Still, The Rising is a vibrant and moving work. None of the songs -- even "Waitin' On A Sunny Day" or the out-of-place "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)" -- are filler. And while the album's decidedly "modern-day Bruce" sound -- which is to say, more Born in the U.S.A. than Born to Run -- may disappoint some fans, it's not without its musical surprises.

But it's just not that easy anymore. The Rising does almost everything right, sidestepping the easy but wrongheaded jingoism of Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American)" in favor of recurring images and themes meant to inspire rather than inflame. Indeed, it does just about everything you could reasonably expect of it, especially given how relatively soon it follows on the heels of Sept. 11. But it's hard to call it an absolute triumph. Because even though some of its songs were written before Sept. 11, and not every song addresses those events directly, it can't help but be regarded as "Bruce Springsteen's Sept. 11 record." And the very notion of such a record still feels wrong, somehow. Yes, we've always had songs and even movies made of pivotal and tragic events in our history, from "Ohio" to Pearl Harbor and Platoon. Still, through no fault of its own -- by virtue of our tendency to regard even the most stirring pop music as something trivial, and despite its admirable spirit of ascendancy -- The Rising feels like a contribution to the marginalization, even trivialization, of the events it addresses.

Could its very existence as a document about post-Sept. 11 America ultimately end up diminishing the importance of that day? As the memory of the day fades and more and more performers, many far less talented and intelligent as Springsteen, start churning out Sept. 11 albums the way country stars make obligatory Christmas records for their conservative Bible Belt fan-base, will we begin to forget the scale, the sheer size and scope, of those events? To mistakenly begin to regard Sept. 11 as something we can easily fit into a box, or a CD case? The Rising is a compelling disc, it's much needed, and it deals with Sept. 11 with a grace we can hardly have imagined or expect from our pop stars. But in the end that day just isn't something a song or an album or a movie can ever hope to do even some small justice to. And while it may never do so, if The Rising ultimately helps lull us into forgetting that fact, it will have to be considered a smartly-executed, masterfully accomplished, well-intentioned failure.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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