Bruce Springsteen – The Rising

The Rising (2002)

B

1. Lonesome Day 2. Into The Fire 3. Waitin’ On A Sunny Day 4. Nothing Man 5. Countin’ On A Miracle 6. Empty Sky 7. Worlds Apart 8. Let’s Be Friends (Skin To Skin) 9. Further On (Up The Road) 10. The Fuse 11. Mary’s Place 12. You’re Missing 13. The Rising 14. Paradise 15. My City Of Ruins

 

Every New Yorker has their 9/11 story – where they were that day; how they or a loved one narrowly avoided getting trapped at Ground Zero in a manner that must have seemed like cosmic intervention at the time; how they knew someone who never got out of the towers. I was only 10 years old at the time, but I have mine. Although I spent my entire life up until the age of 18 living on the Upper East Side, I wasn’t in the city at the time of the attack – I was upstate in Roxbury, New York on a weeklong school trip. But when our counselor informed us there had been a terrorist attack at the World Trade Center, I got a little freaked out because I knew my dad had been working a job there setting up some kind of event. In fact, I had just gone with him down there what couldn’t have been more than a week or so earlier. I still remember looking up at the Twin Towers—for the last time, it turned out—and going into… Borders? Was there a Borders down there at the time? It was some store like that. (Obviously this was a long time ago now. I hadn’t hit puberty and Borders still existed – might as well be ancient history!). Fortunately, I soon heard from my parents that they were both fine – my dad wasn’t working that Tuesday (and, it turns out, his buddies who were all got away safely). I got really lucky. And when I did return home to the city, during the weeks that followed, I understandably wasn’t all that up on the global implications, so I mostly just remember all the scrolls on the news and all the posters around town with the faces of the “missing” – folks who weren’t so lucky. Their families’ 9/11 stories don’t have happy endings.

So much of the media that came out in response to 9/11 has aged about as well as the mostly sweatpants-based wardrobe I was rocking at the time. The jingoism, the cheap emotional ploys, even the genuine neighborly  – it’s all been irrevocably tainted in my eyes by the lawless fear mongering and despicable war profiteering that followed and tore the country apart to an extent that not even Trump will ever be able to surpass because he’s too fucking stupid to be so deliberately diabolical.

The Rising is an exception. It holds up well–thematically, at least–because it focuses on how the terrible events that took place on 9/11 impacted the lives of regular individuals that were touched by the tragedy in one way or another. It is not the hollow flag-waving propaganda that was so common at the time. These are stories not about “heroes,” but about the rest of us: grieving spouses, friends, and neighbors who are lost and confused and don’t know how to move forward. I wouldn’t have expected Bruce to handle it any other way (and neither should anyone else other than nitwits who knew him primarily as the composer of Reagan’s ‘84 campaign song), and he just about nailed it. Sure, there are some universalist attempts at uplift here. But while the choruses of songs like “The Rising” and “Into the Fire” offer characteristically bombastic refrains for crowds of thousands to cathartically chant along to (I mean, the latter’s “May your strength give us strength/May your faith give us faith/May your hope give us hope/May your love give us love” is practically chain email from grandma-worthy), even the verses of those songs are much more personal, depicting survivors haunted by images of their loved ones disappearing into smoke and fire. That’s what “You’re Missing” and “Empty Sky” are about too. The characters in those songs aren’t concerned about the politics of it all – all they’re trying to do is make it to tomorrow after having a gigantic hole torn in their lives. Even for me–and even the most perfunctory 9/11 anniversary coverage on the news enrages me because it completely whitewashes what the Bush administration did after–these songs are absolutely heartbreaking to listen to.

Not every song is explicitly about 9/11, but almost all of them fit the album’s themes. For instance, “My City of Ruins” was actually written a few years earlier about urban decay in Asbury Park, but is conveniently even more powerful and uplifting when reinterpreted to apply to New York as well (so much so that I don’t even care that it’s a total “People Get Ready” ripoff!). “Worlds Apart” is a love song but, unabashedly cheesy as it is (“I seek faith in your kiss, and comfort in your heart/I taste the seed upon your lips, lay my tongue upon your scars…” um, gross?), a song about devout Muslim narrator professing his love for a non-Muslim at least makes sense in context.

So with Bruce’s thematic mojo fully recovered after 20 years of trying vainly to find it again, it’s understandable that The Rising was at the time of his release and often still is mentioned in the same breath as his most popular records from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Personally, though, I’d have to take an awfully deep breath to do that, because although it unquestionably features several of the best songs Bruce had written since he had dissolved the E Street Band, it’s also such an overlong grab bag of different genres, production styles, and overall levels of quality that it often feels more haphazard than eclectic. It also features the disgustingly cutesy R&B-lite abomination “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin),” almost inarguably the worst Bruce Springsteen song of all time (I mean, at least he kept “Bishop Danced” locked away in a closet where it belong for 25 years before he released it). Let’s just say that if it was revealed tomorrow that in 1974 Bruce backed his truck up over a hooker and left her for dead, “Let’s Be Friends” would still be the worst thing he ever did.

Although The Rising was in fact the first Bruce studio album to feature the E Street Band since Born in the U.S.A., it sounds barely a whit like the E Street Band of yore. Instead, its closest analog in Bruce’s catalog is probably—and this make it sound worse than it is, but it’s true—Human Touch. The overstuffed arrangements, the backup singers, the processed guitars, the lengthy tracklist – the sound, with Brendan O’Brien at the helm, is as distinctly “2002” as Human Touch was “late ‘80s,” which makes it more palatable to the modern ear, but no less dated. You don’t think I can pinpoint those funky drum loops and echoey vocal effects to a clearly defined period when I was in 5th and 6th grade? Come on, man. I was all over Z100 back then. That was the sound of my youth.

But it’s not just O’Brien – this is easily the most dizzyingly heterogeneous collection of songs Bruce has ever written, to the extent that I would have never thought I had it in him. Genres touched on include but are not limited to: symphonic power pop, folk-gospel, blue-eyed soul, adult contemporary pop, world music, modern R&B, searing electric blues rock, Beatle-y balladry, morose Ghost of Tom Joad-style folk, and FINALLY, against all odds, ONE song that actually sounds like the goodtime E Street Band of the ‘70s! That’s “Mary’s Place,” and it’s great! Not only are the lyrics a classic Bruce bait and switch—setting a story about a guy going to party to happy upbeat music before revealing that it’s not a joyous occasion, and the partygoers are trying vainly to get back to normal in the wake of the same tragedy that has befallen almost everyone Bruce sings about here—but it features what is virtually Clarence’s only audible sax part on the album. Otherwise, he’s virtually a non-entity, along with Little Stevie, Roy Bittan, and Danny Federici. I mean, they certainly play a bunch on the album–the latter three do, anyway–but it’s nearly impossible to pick their personal styles out of this mix. They might as well be nameless studio musicians for the most part.

I know I sound like a 60-year old man who wishes it was 1975 again, but I just think it’s strange that the big reunion with the E Street Band that everyone had been waiting for sounds almost nothing like the E Street Band. Which is actually pretty rebellious of the Bosshole, even if some of the pseudo-experimental sounds he tries out work better than others. Can I get behind the dramatic yet upbeat orchestral riff that drives “Lonesome Day”? For sure, because it’s got a great melody behind it. The growling bluesiness of “Further On (Up the Road)”? You bet your ass. Haven’t heard Bruce get down and dirty like that since “Adam Raised A Cain.” The vaguely psychedelia-tinged ballad “You’re Missing”? Absolutely, because I like the Revolver-ish guitar riff and the lyrics are so moving. On the other hand, we get “Nothing Man” (the adult contemporary one – actually has a pretty melody but with those synth pads it really does sound like a Human Touch outtake), “Worlds Apart” (an ambitious attempt to blend electronic drums, rock instrumentation, and Middle Eastern melodic elements that was probably better left on the shelf), “Paradise” (which brings back bad memories of The Ghost of Tom Joad), and the aforementioned trainwreck “Let’s Be Friends.” Even if all of these songs were great—and truthfully, most of them are—they don’t always sound like they all belong on the same album. Especially since that album is 73 goddamned minutes long and could have used some trimming for cohesion’s sake.

In the end, as flawed as it is, The Rising still may be an essential Bruce album, because even if some of the stylistic choices haven’t aged well, the message, remarkably, has. I’m not sure I ever want to hear another word about 9/11 from a politician or newscaster, but hearing Bruce sing about it in the way he does remains a meaningful comfort.



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