Bruce Springsteen has become, over the years, to stand for and mean much more than just a “rock singer.” Much like Bob Dylan in this respect, his audience has built an entire mythos around his lyrics, and taken his tales of everyman to heart to an extent generally unseen in popular culture. Albums such as Darkness at the Edge of Town and Born To Run did this by articulating what are essentially our private thoughts – notions of loneliness, isolation and betrayal – and bringing them into the comforting grasp of family, for Bruce and the E-Street Band exists to many as rock’s ultimate family structure. His songs dealt with what appear at first glance to be “small” issues. The emptiness felt when a lover departs, never to return – “I lost my money and I lost my wife/Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now” from Darkness or the longing one feels when reflecting on your past as in “Glory Days”: “Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture/a little of the glory of / well time slips away/and leaves you with nothing mister but/boring stories of glory days.” These are universal emotions that attach to each of us as individuals, but by voicing them, Springsteen gave us solace, faith and acceptance on a grand scale – millions of record buyers, thousands in an arena or one person sitting in the dark with a spinning LP – it was all the same. The balance he struck between our fear and shame and the need for release is encapsulated by the gleeful revelry he imbues moments such as “Dancing in the Dark” with – life might be hard, things are tough, but for this moment, it’s okay to dance. He understood his fans’ collective need to both accept their fears and at the same time to stomp them into dust. His live performance is less a rock concert than a tent show of redemption for the faithful. At this he is unmatched. His understanding of human nature combined with a masterful application of rock music’s greatest strengths left him without equal during his reign, a period that extended up until he began recording on his own, without the fabled E-Street Band.
So it is natural for many to turn to their father figure – “The Boss” – after the events of 9/11. In fact, rumor has it people stopped Springsteen on the streets after that horrible day and pleaded for his return – “We need you now, man!” (which, if true, is both sad and unsettling). All but two of The Rising’s songs were written after September 11th, and all but one deal directly with the events. Does the record succeed as a statement? Not particularly. Too many songs seem to follow a paint by numbers “Bruce” playbook: “I love you baby/But now you’re gone/I’ll miss you forever.” The first three songs are this exactly, and they suffer from a sense of “sameness” that is only broken briefly by “Nothing Man,” and then its back to the “miss ya baby” songs. It is music by formula. It isn’t that Springsteen hasn’t already proven his ability to tackle large issues and make them singular – read the lyrics to “Born in the USA” again. His look at Vietnam and its aftermath from the perspective of one person was masterful (if a bit jingoistic). Perhaps the public misreading of that song – the attempts of politicians to use it as a theme song comes to mind – has frightened Springsteen from facing such an issue head-on again. For whatever reason, only one song on The Rising seems to show an ability to move past the events of terror and see a future – “Further On (Up the Road),” and that is one of the songs written before 9/11. In it, Springsteen vows to meet someone in the future. Perhaps in better times, maybe not. Maybe a lover, maybe a friend, the song never explicitly says, which makes it more engaging, and powerful, than most any other song on the record. Of course, it’s also about the only rocker on the record, as well, so that might have something to do with it.
Apart from the tentative lyrics, the faults of the record only really begin to show themselves upon repeated listening. First, for all the much ballyhooed return of the E-Street Band, their presence is muted to the point of sounding much like the session players Springsteen replaced them with in the early ’90s, and the joyous ensemble feel of records such as Born To Run or The River is absent. The fault for this has to lie somewhat on new producer Brendan O’Brien’s shoulders. The record feels cramped with drum machines, strings and too many vocals. The use of Asif Ali Khan and group on “Worlds Apart” could have been a nice touch, but sounds completely out of place here. And Springsteen’s decision to use the silly doo wop number “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)” additionally cripples the record. It attempts to serve as a midpoint break in a long run of “heavy” songs, but somehow Bruce singing about wanting to get his freak on is disquieting on an otherwise somber record. “My City of Ruins” is recast from its appearance on the 9/11 tribute show, now in an almost gospel setting, which retains none of the starkness of the original. Written before 9/11 about his hometown in New Jersey, the songs universal theme of loss is well-handled, but the production feels a bit grandiose, and the song suffers (as do most of the songs on the album) from a tendency to repeat key lines of the lyric over and over. While this might work live, on The Rising it becomes annoying, and drags the songs down. The only song that sounds as if it could have existed during the “Glory Days” of the E-Street Band is “Mary’s Place,” which catches us up with a familiar Springsteen character and feels like something off of Born To Run, largely because of the saxophone of Clarence Clemons and the organ swells of Danny Federici.
But in a larger sense, this record will fail for some listeners precisely for the reasons it will succeed for others: Springsteen pulls his punches. Instead of facing the horror head on, he walks around it, referring to it only elliptically, without judgment. When he deals with the issue of loss, the personalization of the event largely removes the bigger picture in which it is contained. He could be singing about the loss of a dog. This is not the stance of a man who gave us “Born in the USA” or dour assessments of the Nebraska album. His choice to leave off the controversial song “American Skin (41 Shots),” about the tragic shooting of an unarmed man by New York police perhaps is due to its not fitting in with the September 11th theme, or maybe he (or the record company) was afraid to offend buyers with an unpopular stance. This is a man who regularly performed Edwin Starr’s “War” with the introductory warning of “Blind faith in anyone or anything will get you killed,” so he isn’t shy about his feelings. Or perhaps one should more accurately say wasn’t shy. The Bruce Springsteen of a post-9/11 world seems to these ears to be a hesitant voice aiming for the middle of the road, a place he knows his people most likely will be found. For a man who once led us to the Promised Land, this is a sad thing to accept.
Bruce Springsteen: http://www.brucespringsteen.net