It isn’t surprising that the first major cultural response to the events of last September 11 was to call out the rock stars, first to an impressively restrained telethon, then to a flag-waving shindig at Madison Square Garden. What began as the music of the outside rebel young has long since become the music of We the People, a sound both familiar and stimulating, nostalgic and vital: lullaby, battle cry. This is why it is used to sell you cars and make movies more interesting than they really are. It‘s comfort food, and it’s candy, but it is also, for lack of a more rockin‘ word, nutritional — soul food, as it were.
Rock is the alternate church of the last half-century, and like other churches it provides spiritual uplift, aphoristic guidance and occasions for refracting the energy of the mob in a way that can ennoble the mob. Or, as the tirelessly aphoristic Pete Townshend once put it, rock & roll won’t solve your problems, but it will allow you to dance all over them. (He also once said he was a woman, but that is a story for another time.)
This church of rock knows no better evangelist than Mr. Bruce Springsteen, who made the metaphor explicit during his last tour — promising, in the voice of a tent-show preacher, “a rock & roll exorcism, a rock & roll baptism and a rock & roll bar mitzvah” — and whose performances are multilayered rites of transcendence. Springsteen appeared at the post-attack telethon, singing “My City of Ruins,” a song about Asbury Park that sounded as if it had been written for the occasion, and missed the MSG concert, as he was that night acting local, playing another benefit closer to home in New Jersey. Speaking as one who scrupulously avoided the human-interest fallout from that wretched day — once you start taking interest in one human, you‘ve got to start taking interest in them all, all the world’s collaterally damaged — and with Paul McCartney‘s “Freedom” and Neil Young’s “Let‘s Roll” having already demonstrated the dangers of pop brains addressing unthinkable current events, I was — dismayed? unready? aquiver? — to hear that Springsteen had in the months since then made a “911” record.
But Bruce is a special case, the Rock Star Who Walks Like a Man. He is possibly the most responsible artist in rock & roll as regards what he sees as his common-folk constituency; to write about people vaporized simply because they showed up to work would almost inevitably bring out the best in him, and indeed he’s made the finest if not necessarily the best record of his three-decade career — his first full-fledged collection of new songs in seven years, his first album with the E Street Band since 1984, and his first unequivocally great work in longer than I‘d like to say. He has found his way back to the essence of what he does, creating music that is at once enormous and intimate, epic and domestic. The Rising is not a work of rage or analysis, but rather a collection of love songs (or lost-love songs) and ghost stories, and not the least of its many virtues is that you can dance to just about all of it.
The myriad interviews Springsteen has given, and the media’s love of a good hook, have guaranteed that The Rising will be known as his World Trade Center album, though nothing in the package itself alludes to it: There are no American flags or dedications to cops and firemen, just thanks to the people who do his business and help make his music, and shout-outs to his wife and kids. You wouldn‘t need to know that most of these songs grew out of September 11, but it does knit the album together in a way that lets images resonate from song to song and allows the stronger songs to buoy the less strong; and it reminds you that death haunts nearly every track, which is not immediately obvious. The songs are detailed but not particularized — a real change for a man who relishes singing the names of people and places — which lets the record float free: It’s about anyone, anywhere. It‘s not even clear much of the time whether the character Springsteen is singing is male or female. (Do you hear, Pete Townshend?) Direct references to the Events of That Day are few — stairs, fire, the “misty cloud of pink vapor” are as specific as it gets — and that you can’t read the songs as news clippings, as you can some of those on Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad, only makes them feel more mysterious and authentic.
Most of The Rising seems to transpire in a purgatorial half-light into which flash images of nature (“Trees on fire with the first fall‘s frost,” a “sweet summer breeze,” a sky of “unbelievable blue”) like intimations of a better future. The plain language of the lyrics, which sometimes employ biblical cadences, keeps the songs on the right side of melodrama, and the music, which rarely slips into bombast, anchors their sometimes-weird magic in honest reality. Though in his younger days he had a taste for baroque verbiage and pop operetta, Springsteen long ago settled in between the relatively narrow borders of his own brand of big-city suburban country soul music; he’s a meat-and-potatoes guy, but with a liking for the odd condiment. His bold move here was to hire a new producer, Brendan O‘Brien (Pearl Jam, Korn), who tugs him into the 21st century, or into the late ’90s, anyway — but he does not tug too hard. The songs marshal the same old chords in the same old combinations, but every track has its discrete tint and swing, some little bit of trimming that sets it apart; the effect is one of tremendous variety. Just as important is that Springsteen is recording with a band again — ancient companions the E Street Band, who bring a certain historical tension to the mix and elevate these tracks above the glorified demos the Boss of them had sometimes called finished product during their layoff. Old pros with heart, they play like a band who thought they might never record again, and like it‘s the last record they’ll ever make.
Some might question Springsteen‘s right to the subject, but he is, after all, besides being a millionaire rock star, a New Jersey family man, who as a father and neighbor has had to consider the fallout. His great constant theme — not even of his songs, particularly, but of his career — is “There but for the grace of God (and Leo Fender) go I.” And though he’s not exactly an average Joe — he‘s got more talent and energy and ambition and, yes, money than you and you and you and me — he’s kept in touch with his inner average Joe, the one that didn‘t become the Boss. He’s just another guy (one feels he likes to feel) doing his job — which is to take you somewhere higher, somewhere deeper, than you could get on your own, to get you up off your ass and walk you to the edge. He is magnified by and magnifies his audience, from whom he is inextricable, each bound to the other by mutual recognition.
Springsteen is on tour now with his new album, and it is perhaps not such an odd thing that a work woven from sudden mass extermination will provide the occasion and soundtrack for the clapping of hands and punching of air and shaking of rear, not to say the buying of merch and chanting of “Bruuuuuuce.” Well, why not? As the subject at hand sang many long years ago, “It ain‘t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” Ultimately The Rising is about the same thing as every other Bruce Springsteen record — the fight against despair, against the big black nothing the world is always threatening to become. The weapons are the same as they ever were: love, sex and rock & roll, and some kind of faith, whether it‘s that there’s magic in the night, or that — for the living at least — death is not the end, or even that you can grow up to lead a band.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN | The Rising | (Columbia)