Will the images of 9/11 ever really fade? Not just the apocalyptic ones -- airplanes crashing through the towers, terrified people running out of that hellish maelstrom of smoke and dust, the sudden, surreal collapse of those impossibly tall buildings. Equally -- perhaps even more -- haunting are the subsequent memories, of spouses and parents standing mutely near Ground Zero, desperately holding photographs of missing loved ones; dazed cops and firefighters talking about vanished comrades; a new widow, blinking back tears, clutching her young children as she is interviewed....
The Rising testifies eloquently that like all of us, Bruce Springsteen was moved by those scenes. Leading off the fund-raising TV broadcast days later, appearing alone and unannounced singing "My City of Ruins," his sorrowful intensity and the song's evocative imagery crystallized our shared shock and grief, opening the door not just to that wonderful concert, but also to a glimmer of healing and hope.
Bruce reminds us in The Rising that 9/11 was more than a great cataclysm that killed over 2000 people -- it was thousands of cataclysms, and the victims number far more than the dead -- families, friends, neighbors...and ultimately, to some degree, all who value life. 9/11 threw a big rock into the placid pond of America's domestic serenity, and ripples of fear and hate are still spreading.
Bruce's work frequently expresses his feelings about social and political issues -- especially concerning America's economic underclass -- although he does not make sweeping pronouncements in the style of, say, Bono. Bruce speaks through his characters, the narrators of his songs, and not rhetorically but through the lives that inhabit the songs. Think of "The River" or "Johnstown," or that most misinterpreted of protest songs, "Born in the USA."
And so it is here. Bruce's depiction of the consequences of that terrible day, and of the hate and misunderstanding that have long marked relations between the U.S. and Arab countries, is told through personal, intimate songs, through metaphor and allegory. Almost every song on The Rising expresses basic human emotion: loneliness and loss ("You're Missing," "Paradise"), optimism ("Waitin' on a Sunny Day," "Countin' on a Miracle"), even flirtation ("Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)"). Even the songs that most unequivocally evoke that day ("Into the Fire," "The Rising,") unfold through the eyes and emotions of individuals.
Bruce has made albums throughout his career that are dominated by specific moods and points of view: Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad come to mind. But The Rising is his most thematically unified work, and his first "concept" album since he rattled Phil Spector's cage with Born to Run.
Rain, clouds and storms appear throughout. These traditionally suggest sorrow--the literary conceit of "Nature's solemn sympathy" with the misfortunes of mankind. Images on blood also resonate throughout, representing in different contexts death and destruction, revenge - or common human connection and kinship.
But the most potent metaphor here is the kiss, which we find in almost every song. Veteran fans will know that kisses have long populated Bruce's work, although to my recollection never quite so pervasively as on The Rising. For Bruce, the kiss can represent romance or physical love -- but also forgiveness, understanding, redemption -- human intimacy in all its variety.
"Lonesome Day" brilliantly sets up the album's themes. The first stanza would seem to have us in familiar boy-loses-girl territory. But the second stanza shifts our perspective: disturbing images (Hell's fire, dark sun, house on fire, viper) culminate in these lines:
After an almost desperate-sounding refrain, repeating "It's all right," the final stanza pleads for care and restraint, not reflexive revenge:
If there is any doubt concerning what we're talking about, the opening lines of the next song, "Into the Fire," make it clear:
The poignancy of sacrifice depicted in the verses that follow is balanced by the repeated, anthem-like chorus - which does in fact reflect the sense of national solidarity and the renewed appreciation for police and firefighters in the wake of 9/11:
Throughout The Rising, the song sequencing balances mood and musical color. For example, the optimistic and musically upbeat "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" and "Countin' on a Miracle" bookend the dark, subdued "Nothing Man." The narrator there is a firefighter who survived the towers, and is now suffering "survivor's guilt" as daily life swirls around him:
The last line is a brilliant stroke. None of us who were glued in front of our televisions on 9/11 will ever forget the almost surreal clear blue sky contrasted to the billowing black smoke--and the narrator is carrying that memory as part of his burden.
Another jarring sequence comes near the end. "The Rising" moves from the doomed firefighter in a stairwell to a transcendent vision, driven by the swelling music and gospel choir. But immediately after that inspirational climax comes "Paradise" -- perhaps the bleakest of all these songs. This narrator moves as if through a fog, stuck in this tainted world "Where the river runs to black." He wants to believe in redemption, in Paradise, "where the river runs clean and wide," but when he sees a vision of his lost one, "I search for the peace in your eyes/But they're as empty as paradise." Although the song ends with a hopeful image of the sun on his face, it is no more than that.
At the core of The Rising is the sequence of "Empty Sky," "Worlds Apart" and "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)." The opening stanza of "Empty Sky" virtually encapsulates the album's themes:
This is great songwriting. The "empty impression" - the narrator's individual loss - is microcosm to the macrocosm of the empty sky - the great cataclysm, which is also evoked by the second line. Sadness over his loss - "I want a kiss from your lips" - leads to anger and thoughts of revenge: "I want an eye for an eye." The allegory of the final stanza, moving to "the plains of Jordan," with the tree of evil/good, evokes the Middle East and suggests that there are no clear black-and-white answers. That geographical shift also sets up the next song.
"Worlds Apart" begins like a variation on West Side Story -- lovers separated by cultural differences. But Arabic-sounding chants and instruments, together with references to "this dry and troubled country" and "Allah's blessed rain" leave no doubt that the song is an allegory of America and the Middle East. Bruce boils down the decades of mutual deception, economic exploitation and political double-dealing in this brilliant verse:
"Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)" takes these ideas further yet. Over a catchy, seductive shuffle, the words plead for a fresh start:
Probably no two populaces know less about the realities of each other's everyday lives than the American people and the Moslem masses of the Middle East. And given the attitudes of the people in power on both sides, it's unlikely that the situation will improve in the foreseeable future. But we want our artists to offer a vision, not calculate odds, and so we can take this refrain as a flight of utopian fancy -- sort of like John Lennon's "Imagine":
Enjoying The Music
The Rising is not just a collection of great lyrics. The music dances through many changes, and the arrangements are consistently appropriate to the words of each song, from the high-spirited exuberance of "Mary's Place" (reminds me, musically, of "Rosalita") to the haunting simplicity of "You\re Missing."
It's wonderful to hear Bruce together with the E Street Band. In the years since Born in the USA, much as I have liked almost all of Bruce's work, I can't count how many times I have found myself wondering how a given song would sound with the E Streeters. Building on the rock-solid propulsion of Max Weinberg's powerful drumming and Garry Tallent's agile bass, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren contribute killer rhythm guitar. Bruce's economical but passionate solos are spotted through the album, and I get a little chill of nostalgic E Street pleasure when I hear Danny Federici's fills on the B3, or Roy Bittan's poetic keyboard introductions, or especially Clarence Clemons' great saxophone (check out his bridge on "Mary's Place"). It also seems especially fitting to have Bruce hooking up with these guys, given the album's tone and subject matter -- in tough times, it's good to have reliable friends around you.
Much credit must go to producer Brendan O'Brien for the best-produced recording Bruce has ever made. O'Brien's creative imagination and taste are essential to achieving the rich textures and sonic variety we hear on The Rising. I am not normally a fan of strings on rock records, but here they are integrated beautifully, both in ensemble and solo. The background voices, whether singing doo-wop syllables or ecstatic gospel style, add great emotional impact (e.g., "The Rising"). One measure of O'Brien's success is that even with these complex arrangements, Bruce never has to shout or strain -- he can sing in a range and volume that allow him to concentrate on expressiveness and interpretation.
In closing, I want to revisit "My City on Ruins." On that night back in September 2001 it articulated our grief. That same depth of sorrow comes through in the two opening stanza is, and even after the call-to-action "Come on, rise up" chorus, the essential questions of The Rising remain:
And the answer comes, loud and clear, as the full-throated chorus repeats again and again, "With these hands," as Bruce interjects variously "I pray for (the strength/the faith/your love) Lord." I'm not a religious guy, but I can't hear this without a tear in my eye.
The Rising is a mature masterwork by a quintessentially American artist at the top of his powers, given outstanding assistance by everyone who worked on the album. Eschewing knee-jerk jingoism and hate-mongering rhetoric, Bruce offers compassion, understanding and hope. And since we've been speaking of loss, I'll just say that if you don't connect with The Rising, the loss will be yours.
Sound Quality: 90