With “The Rising,” Springsteen forges a rock ‘n’ roll liturgy for 9/11

The Boss

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON) -- Can a rock album capture a historical moment in the manner of Picasso’s “Guernica” or the “1812 Overture” by Tchaikovsky? That’s just one of several questions raised by Bruce Springsteen’s spectacular new album, “The Rising” (Columbia), which came out earlier this week and which in large part addresses life in the aftermath of 9/11.

Newspapers pile up on doorsteps, lovers lie in bed alone missing their loved ones, fires rage out of control and blood is scattered everywhere throughout the 15 new songs on the album, his first studio recording in seven years and the first to feature the E Street Band since 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A,” the album that established him as an American icon and international superstar.

Springsteen’s trademark is couching big themes in small, personal dramas. The songs on “The Rising” are told through the eyes of stunned firemen and rescue workers, through the gaping hearts of those widowed and left behind, and even through the mind of a suicide bomber with a twisted notion of “paradise.”

Working through loneliness and pain, the characters in Springsteen’s songs typically seek uplift through some sort of spiritual transcendence or belief in a higher power. Thus on the kickoff track, “Lonesome Day,” the narrator looks through the storm and fire, prays, and concludes in an insistently defiant chorus, “It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right.”

Likewise, in “Countin’ on a Miracle” -- a “Prove It All Night”-style hard rocker with a Beatles-like string-quartet passage -- a lover left behind with just “this dust beneath my feet” rallies enough faith to believe that “In God’s hands our fate is complete,” waiting for the miracle in the song’s title to bring them back together.

In the wake of 9/11, many Americans reportedly sought solace in prayer, and Springsteen taps directly into that need -- several numbers on “The Rising” are prayers disguised as songs. In “Into the Fire,” the wife of a deceased fireman reasons that “Love and duty called you someplace higher/Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire,” and then prays, “May your strength give us strength/May your faith give us faith/May your hope give us hope/May your love give us love,” a refrain that will undoubtedly be a sing-along highlight of concerts for years to come, and perhaps even make it into the American canon as an ode to the fallen rescue workers of September 11.

The title track and the album closer, the gospel-inflected “My City of Ruins” – the latter written before 9/11, but remarkably prescient in its themes – are also prayers of a sort, invoking images of laying on of hands and resurrection that Springsteen, a self-descriped “lapsed Catholic,” has long favored in his songwriting.

In a bold move, Springsteen widens his musical and narrative lens on “Worlds Apart,” which opens with the Sufi Islamic prayer-chant form called qawwali, as sung by Asif Ali Kahn, a protégé of the late Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Springsteen’s voice emerges from Khan’s choir, singing about a meeting between East and West not on the battlefield but between the bedsheets. It may not make for sophisticated geopolitics, but Springsteen’s prescription – “Let’s throw the truth away, we’ll find it in this kiss/In your skin upon my skin, in the beating of our hearts” – makes for sexy and idealistic rock ‘n’ roll, and the musical fusion of the Pakistani choir, an Arabic violin line and the minor-key rock guitars effectively echo the lyrical theme of love triumphing over difference.

Perhaps even more startling is “Paradise,” a jarringly ominous, mournful tune whose first few verses are from the point of view of a suicide bomber. Springsteen renders the bomber without moral judgment, and juxtaposes her last moments with the emotional scars borne by a woman left widowed by the attack on the Pentagon. In the end, both are left disappointed by empty notions of heavenly afterlife.

Springsteen doesn’t ignore the baser instincts provoked by the terrorist attacks. “A little revenge too and this shall pass,” he sings on “Lonesome Day.” And in its insistent pounding rhythms, fully-voiced piano chords, and wailing, siren-like harmonica, “Empty Sky” gives vent to the rage and emotional confusion that accompanied the horror and loss: “I want a kiss from your lips/I want an eye for an eye/I woke up this morning to an empty sky.”

The album’s serious themes are leavened with several upbeat tunes. With the old-school r&b of “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)” Springsteen has finally recorded a song that fulfills his promise as a soul singer. “Mary’s Place,” with Asbury Jukes-style horns, is also good-time, r&b party music, and “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” is a throwback to “Hungry Heart”-style rock ‘n’ roll replete with a key change, a saxophone solo and a doo-wop chorus. But even this potential pop hit is tinged with sadness, as the singer mentions tears, hard times, clouds and the blues, and the song ends with a resounding piano chord that drops a bomb on the party.

That resonant chord is typical of the subtle, painterly musical touches that make this one of Springsteen’s best-sounding albums, perhaps the best since 1975’s “Born to Run,” the breakthrough album that first earned him the cover of the nation’s newsweeklies (he’s on Time’s cover again this week). Credit devolves to Brendan O’Brien, whose resume includes production duties for Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Korn, Limp Bizkit and Bob Dylan. The first producer hired by the Boss from outside his insular posse, O’Brien widens Springsteen’s sonic palette far beyond the built-in limits of the E Street Band – in addition to the Pakistani choir, the record features a gospel choir, a string quartet and orchestra and various high-tech, industrial touches. But the hip-hop and industrial effects never sound like a conscious attempt at updating Springsteen’s sound – they just make it sound fresh.

Springsteen’s 46-city summer/fall tour kicks off next Wednesday on his home turf at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. Other northeast dates include New York’s Madison Square Garden on August 12, Boston’s Fleet Center on October 4, and Albany’s Pepsi Arena, currently the last date scheduled on his 2002 tour, on December 13.

For the last 20 years, at least as far back as 1982’s solo guitar album, “Nebraska,” there has been a tension in Springsteen’s work between his desire to be a modern-day, Woody Guthrie-style, social-realist folksinger and the heart of the good-time rock ‘n’ roll romantic that beats within.

“The Rising” is his most successful fusion of these two seemingly contradictory impulses. And it’s not surprising that in the shattered paradigm of 9/11’s aftermath, Springsteen has found the canvas upon which to set down his visions of everyday heroism and combine his neo-romantic and realist impulses. In the process, both gain color and depth, and Springsteen himself transcends the sentimental weaknesses that have marred some of his lesser past efforts.

As to where this will lead -- and whether “The Rising” will hold up over time and itself transcend the heightened emotionality of this particular historical moment -- those things remain to be seen. But in the meantime, with “The Rising,” Springsteen has staked out new territory for himself with his best album in two decades, demonstrating that rock music is a form capable of addressing the most significant events of our time. Most powerfully, he forges a liturgy of our national trauma built out of three- and four-minute odes of transcendence disguised as rock songs.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 2, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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