Making a permanent impression since 1994
January 30, 2003
Rising to the challenge
By Jesse Young
In his first full E Street
Band record since the 1980s, the Boss reaffirms his belief in the
redemptive spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.
In the wake of September 11,
popular music fell oddly silent. Instead of trying to grapple with its
devastating impact in song, a hush fell over the musical community; in the eyes
of many, any attempt to translate the sheer enormity of the event into music
could only serve to trivialize it.
Those scant few who chose to
take up the 9-11 mantle in their song craft met with precious little success.
Neil Young’s “Let’s
Roll”, an ode to the bravery of the passengers of Flight 93, was never able to
find solid footing in rock radio, and soon faded away with little fanfare.
Paul McCartney’s somewhat
trite, if well-meaning, flag-waving anthem “Freedom” met a similar fate.
It soon became all-too clear
that none of pop music’s vanguard were willing to step forward and address
Months passed, Eminem
released another needlessly angry album, and things returned to business as
Then Bruce Springsteen
released “The Rising” on July 30,
his first full-album collaboration with the E Street Band since 1984’s
anthemic, widely-misunderstood “Born in the
Set largely against the
emotional backdrop of September 11, the album was hailed as a return to form for
Springsteen, and quickly found a place at number one on the Billboard charts.
Still, amid the media hype
surrounding the record’s release, the album’s essence was somehow distorted:
suddenly, “The Rising” became
synonymous with 9-11. Any significance it had outside the attacks was rendered
moot at the hands of the media dissection it endured.
Surely, some of the blame
for this oversimplification can be credited with the Herculean promotional
effort mounted by Columbia Records for the album. In search of some way to
summarize the album’s overall arc,
While the promotional push
paid off on both commercial and critical fronts, one crucial fact failed to
reach the ears of many: “The Rising” is
one of the most vital, miraculous American rock albums of the last decade.
“The Rising” comes on
the heels of Springsteen’s triumphant 1999-2000 reunion tour with a
newly-reconstituted E Street Band. Back in league with his old outfit,
Springsteen seemed to have finally kicked the artistic limbo he’d been mired
in since the onset of the nineties.
And yet, with the tour’s
end, another year passed, and Springsteen remained quiet. The forthcoming album
many had expected wasn’t materializing. Springsteen seemed to be searching for
something to spark his fires anew.
The creative impetus he
sought came early on a Tuesday morning in September of 2001.
Springsteen opened the
national telethon the following week with a stirring, somber rendition of “My
City of Ruins,” a lament originally penned for his decaying adopted home of
The nation had been shaken
to its core, and Springsteen, like anyone else, had felt the aftershocks. As he
would later relate in interviews, he began writing in the weeks after the towers
fell, and continued until he’d worked up an album’s worth of material.
Those songs came to fruition
as “The Rising” – a 15-song collection rich with themes long central to
Springsteen’s writing: loss, redemption, faith, and the almighty spirit of
rock ‘n’ roll.
Even though four of the
album’s songs were penned before the eleventh, all are cut from the same
emotional cloth. The men and women who inhabit “The Rising” are staggering.
Still, even in their depths of their pain, they never abandon hope itself; a
guarded optimism sustains the album, undercutting the darker moments it often
Set solely against his back
catalogue, “The Rising” represents a break with Springsteen’s past in more
ways than one.
Ending his long history of
producing his own albums, Springsteen opted to bring aboard notable alt-rock
producer Brendan O’Brien to helm “The Rising” sessions. O’Brien, lauded
for his work with Rage Against the Machine, Stone Temple Pilots, and Pearl Jam,
was brought into the studio by Springsteen in hopes of forging a new musical
direction for the band.
The result is easily the
most radical sonic departure for the E Street band in their 30-some years of
existence. Where trilling glockenspiels and organs once defined Springsteen’s
signature Spector-esque wall-of-sound, “The Rising” finds the guitars and
drums pushed forward in the mix, the once-omnipresent keyboards having taken a
Even more surprising is the
addition of a new member to the band, violinist and longtime Springsteen cohort
Soozie Tyrell, who brings a welcome new dimension to the band’s time-tested
The album opens with
“Lonesome Day,” an up-tempo guitar rocker that seamlessly weaves Tyrell’s
supple violin work into the E Street Band’s musical kick. Lyrically, the song
is tagged by a cautious resolve to push forward come what may; danger and deceit
abound, but the singer finds comfort in the fact that his sorrow is merely
passing – indeed, just another lonesome day.
Besides providing a rallying
cry of an album-opener, Springsteen is making clear his personal outlook --
through the darkness, there’s a light up ahead. It’s a hard-won lesson that
he spends much of the record driving home.
“Into the Fire” follows.
Here one finds Springsteen tapping his folkier side, letting his practiced drawl
linger as slide guitars twang behind him. The plodding intro gives way to a
punch-in-the-gut musical barrage as the band roars to life.
A lament for a firefighter
consumed in the flames of one of the burning towers, “Into the Fire,” can
feel heavy-handed at times; for me, it took several listens to get past the
song’s weighty 9-11 imagery.
Still, that imagery is but a
springboard – out of the song’s initial ponderous shuffle grows a stirring
prayer-like lyrical movement that builds to one of the album’s most cathartic
Tempering the more uplifting
moments of “The Rising” are an equal amount of slower songs exploring the
darker, more personal struggles of its characters.
“Empty Sky” is a
tortured, mourning cry for a lost loved one, fueled by percussive acoustic
guitars and a wailing harmonica lead.
“I want a kiss from your lips/I want an eye for
an eye” goes the lone couplet from “Empty Sky,” making it the
only cry for revenge to be heard on the album, one that its singer soon learns
Missing,” the obvious emotional counterpart to “Empty Sky” and arguably
the album’s thematic centerpiece, is quiet meditation on loss and grief; with
a melody crafted by interwoven violin and piano strains.
one of the most achingly beautiful pieces in Springsteen’s entire catalogue.
characteristic fashion, “You’re Missing” deals with the small things –
an empty bed, a lone coffee cup, and unread newspaper – personal reminders of
the painful void left by the loss of a loved one.
While it settles
well into the overall 9-11 emotional arc, the song doesn’t lose its resonance
outside of that single context -- Springsteen’s writing is fluid and subtle,
never anchoring itself to one particular reading.
Rising,” the album’s title track, stands in dramatic contrast to “You’re
While the latter
is resigned and forlorn in the face of loss, “The Rising” is staunch in its
resolve to move forward.
As its title
suggests, the song is a ringing call to resurgence and renewal. Sporting a
searing guitar solo and a soaring, fist-in-the-air choral refrain, “The
Rising” stands at the eye of the storm, a beacon of faith amidst crushing
“The Rising” strikes
a nice balance between treading familiar E Street sonic territory and new
“World’s Apart” finds a group of Islamic Qawwali
devotional vocalists backing the band, while the
smoldering, dirge-like “The Fuse” makes use of drum loops and hypnotic vocal
Still, Bruce has
the sense never to stray too far from his tried-and-true sound.
One of the many
triumphs of “The Rising” lies
in the manner in which it charts fresh musical ground while still casting the
occasional glance back at Springsteen’s past glories.
1978’s “Prove it All Night” run throughout the determined “Countin’ on
a Miracle,” while the buoyant, soul-tinged bounce of 1980’s “Hungry
Heart” peppers “Waitin’ on A Sunny Day.”
unjustly merited way too many comparisons to Bruce’s 1973 barn-burner
“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” the rollicking house party-anthem “Mary’s
Place” is more in league with older R&B rave-ups like “Tenth Avenue
Freezeout”(1975) and “Sherry Darling”(1980). It’s self-referential
without feeling stagnated.
Yet there are
those moments that drag -- the dissonant guitar-rocker “Further on Up the
Road” grates at times, while the cheery Stax-soul exercise “Let’s Be
Friends (Skin to Skin),” if well-intentioned and fun, feels a bit frivolous in
But these are
minor qualms, to be sure – even those less-than-stellar tracks duly enhance
the album as a whole.
“The Rising” is “not
about 9-11, it’s about 9-12” observed rock journalist and noted Springsteen
biographer Dave Marsh, and a truer sentiment could not be echoed.
thematic axis may be 9-11, the album bears only a cursory concern with the
actual event itself: rather, it serves to tap the myriad emotions of those
reeling in its aftermath. “The
Rising,” in one fashion or another, is their story.
heralds a return of the vitality that has long been absent from rock music.
Springsteen’s work embodies the virtues of a bygone era.
Amid the angst
and cynicism of the modern world, he still stands by his unwavering conviction
in the redemptive spirit of rock music.
Aging has by no
means mellowed the man. “The Rising” finds
Springsteen reinvigorated, singing with a sense of purpose that’s eluded him
In its closing
and opening songs, “The Rising” is
book-ended with calls “to rise up.” It’s a theme that traces its way
throughout the album, and forms the core of Springsteen’s gospel.
Even if this
album alone isn’t enough to affect the healing it was meant to, it stands as
resounding proof that rock ‘n’ roll still has a meaningful place in our
This is music
that makes me glad to be alive, and if that isn’t rock ‘n’ roll’s job, I
don’t know what is.
For more on Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band, see these links to other Tattoo pieces:
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