Columbia Records, 2002
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/13/2002
Thousands of albums have come out since September 11, 2001 -- thousands of songs, thousands of lyrics, thousands of tries at musical immortality. Ninety-nine percent of those songs in no way reference the horror, the sadness, the anger or the pain of that day. The emotions are too raw and visceral, the topic too fraught with dangers of one sort or another. Contributing a pre-existing song to an all-star tribute album is one thing; sticking your hand in a national wound and trying to pull out an album's worth of beauty and meaning is in an entire other universe of artistic ambition.
The Rising is an album no one but Bruce Springsteen could have made -- no one else would have dared, and anyone who did would likely have failed. In the hands of a less perceptive and courageous songwriter, a set of songs aiming to give voice to an entire nation's trauma would have come out gawky and self-serving at best, or bitter and vengeful at worst. Instead, this brilliant collection of 15 tightly focused songs transmutes the emotions of that day into a kind of revival-meeting testimonial to the resilience of the human spirit.
Springsteen, of course, is no stranger as a writer to the territory of American hymns and devotionals. His best work -- Born To Run, "The Promised Land," Nebraska, "Streets Of Philadelphia" -- has always taken larger-than-life characters and situations and infused them with a spiritual fire that draws you in and dares you to care. But given his fierce resistance in the '90s to recycling past glories, Springsteen's journey over the past decade has been a search for subject matter meaningful enough to fully engage his muse.
In the weeks after 9/11, he finally found it. Like the rest of the nation, Springsteen watched that day as planes and buildings and lives came crashing down in New York and Washington and the Pennsylvania countryside. Walking on the beach in New Jersey soon after, he found himself inspired by a fan's shouted exhortation to him -- "We need you!" Maybe you do, he decided, and his response was The Rising.
The songs on this album -- his first studio effort in 18 years with the entire E Street Band by his side throughout -- are varied in texture and inspired in phrasing, but rarely easy. Quieter cuts like "Empty Sky" and the affecting "You're Missing" are shot through with loss in all its emotional shadings -- loneliness, despair, anger, a search for meaning. But perhaps even more moving are mid-tempo roadhouse rockers like "Waitin' On A Sunny Day" and "Countin' On A Miracle," in which a sense of loss is counterpointed by a persistent thread of determination, a belief that what has been lost can be found again inside yourself, in your will to carry on.
That's clearly the message of the album's remarkable cornerstones, both set inside the World Trade Center itself. In the first, the gentle, breathtaking lament "Into The Fire," the lover left behind by a New York firefighter imagines him/her climbing up the stairs, "called to someplace higher," and offers up this gorgeous prayer in his name: "May your strength give us strength / May your faith give us faith / May your hope give us hope / May your love bring us love."
The second is the title tune, a magnificently restrained anthem in which the narrator is himself a fireman climbing the stairs of the World Trade Center before ascending still higher into "a sky filled with light" where "I feel your arms around me." Building slowly over a gospel chorus, Springsteen chants, then wails to this sky, calling it, among other things, a "sky of glory and sadness." What we've lost, he seems to be saying, is redeemed at least in part by what we've found -- a recognition of what true heroism is, and an appreciation for the tenuousness of life.
Truly, there are so many high points on this album it's hard to hit them all. The astonishing "Worlds Apart" enlists a chorus of Sufi Muslim singers to build the otherworldly melody until Springsteen himself explodes into the most ferocious guitar solo of his career. The music matches up beautifully with the lyric, a carefully shaded look at a Romeo-Juliet romance that he hints may be between a Muslim and a Jew.
Elsewhere Springsteen doesn't neglect the chance to work some of his old E Street tricks, like the Motown call-and-answer vocals on the slinky, joyous "Let's Be Friends (Skin To Skin)" and the stop-and-start crescendo at the peak of the explosive "Mary's Place." Both cuts also feature welcome blasts of Clarence Clemons' sax, often overshadowed elsewhere (though appropriately so) by terrific violin work from frequent Springsteen guest Soozie Tyrell. The way Springsteen ties these seemingly disparate tracks into the rest of the album is nothing short of brilliant; the buoyant "Mary's Place" actually contains the single most concise expression of the album's overall mood: "My heart's dark but it's rising."
Springsteen's message is devastatingly simple: life is precious, so live it every minute; and love is the answer to every question that matters. Every bit as resonant a call to action as Born To Run was 27 years ago, The Rising is Bruce Springsteen throwing his arms around the nation and giving voice to our pain, while simultaneously challenging us to do what seemed, in the days following 9/11, like the hardest thing of all: to hope. To celebrate life in the simplest way possible, by going on, by believing in the future. In America 2002, it's a glorious sight and -- yes -- just what we needed.