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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 9-11.

Months passed, Eminem released another needlessly angry album, and things returned to business as usual.

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 USA .”

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, Columbia stamped “The Rising” as ‘Springsteen’s 9-11 record’ instead of peddling it for what it was: the album Springsteen made after 9-11.

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 Asbury Park , N.J.

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 probes.

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 back seat.

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 sound.

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 climaxes.

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 to forsake.

“You’re 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.

It’s easily one of the most achingly beautiful pieces in Springsteen’s entire catalogue.

In 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.

“The Rising,” the album’s title track, stands in dramatic contrast to “You’re Missing.”

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 tragedy.

“The Rising” strikes a nice balance between treading familiar E Street sonic territory and new musical directions.

The haunting “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 overdubs.

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.

Strains of 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.”

Although it’s 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 context.

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.

While its 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.

The album 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 for years.

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 world.

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:

Springsteen rocks Atlantic City

A calming voice for hard times

The Big Man comes home

The Phantom goes to high school

 

 

 

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