In the weeks after September 11, hoards of songwriters from all genres went to work crafting their responses, but none were moved by the tragedy as much as the salt-of-the-earth musicians, the artists who habitually sympathize with the blue-collar workers of the world, the Alan Jacksons and Hank Williams Jrs and, yes, the Bruce Springsteens.
It pains me to lump the great classic rocker into the same category as those slight country artists, but it’s undeniable that while “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” is a pale, obvious shadow of the work on Springsteen’s new album The Rising, the spirit is the same. “Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us / And the greatest is love” Jackson sang on his hit ballad. Springsteen sings on “Into The Fire”, “May your strength give us strength / May your faith give us faith / May your hope give us hope / May your hope bring us love.” The sentiments and themes and even the words are exactly the same. So why is it that “Where Were You” inspires a kind of revulsion in me, while “Into the Fire” made me cry the first time I heard it?
Alan Jackson’s emotion in his ballad came off as forced, because what he does best is write novelty songs about drinking and getting divorced and… shit, I don’t know… horses, I guess. He couldn’t be bothered to employ a single metaphor in his song, opting instead to strike an I-tell-it-like-it-is pose, describing common feelings in as dry and obvious a way as possible, perhaps so as not to go over his audience’s heads. He even wrote a plain-spoken appeal to ignorance into the chorus: “I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference / in Iraq and Iran.” Good for him.
The difference between his failure and Bruce’s success can’t be sincerity, for if we go around questioning the sincerity of one songwriter, they are all suspect, and not even I am that cynical. The difference is quality, plain and simple. Springsteen has always been great at writing anthems, and narrating wrenching emotional situations. He has built a career on taking working-class characters, and all their heartache, and setting it to a scorching guitar riff and an impossibly catchy chorus. He’s also not shy about voicing doubts, exposing contradictions and even exploring his own shortcomings. That, more than anything, is why The Rising works. It is populated with people who are in pain, and confused, and perhaps even wrong, but Bruce makes them Human and, just as importantly, American. He embodies a sensibility so American that no one else could have made an album about September 11 and have it come off this well. Bruce is the voice of the common man in a way that no other artist has ever even come close to.
Not that Springsteen is a simple kinda guy. His songs may be simple in appearance, but are vastly complex in the way they inspire thought and emotion with ever being jingoistic or cloying. Throughout The Rising, he approaches September 11 from a slant-wise perspective, never slamming you in the head with his message, but letting the power of the record flow naturally from the careful craft of his signature emotional ballads and rockers.
Its strongest moments often disguise themselves as songs about garden-variety heartache. In fact, in another time, many of the songs could double as that. “You’re Missing” includes the words: “Pictures on the nightstand / TV’s on in the den / Your house is waiting / For you to walk in / but you’re missing.” It could be a song about a lost love, like the supremely sad “Downbound Train” from Born in the USA. And then it hits you – the “you” of the title is not just gone from the narrator’s life but from the world and the levels of sadness become almost too much to bear.
“Nothing Man” is a touching account of one survivor’s guilt: “I never thought I’d live / to read about myself / in my hometown paper.” He is the “nothing man”, someone who, by all rights, should not even exist and the burden he carries is that of those that didn’t make it to enjoy another backyard barbecue. Springsteen has nothing useful to say to this “nothing man”, no magic balm for his sadness. He just stands back and sadly observes him, and his portrait is so involving and affecting that for the first time, I found myself empathizing with someone who didn’t die in the disaster.
But all is not gloom. A heaviness hangs over the album, as well it should, but elsewhere on The Rising, Springsteen offers a possible antidote. He has always believed the best escape is to rock your ass off. “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” is the E-Street Band at its happiest, wrapping a catchy song in a warm blanket of thunderous drums, lilting fiddles and dobros, and Clarence Clemons’ instantly recognizable saxophone wail. It’s exciting, uplifting and damn near brilliant in its familiarity and simplicity. Springsteen knows that The E-Street Band makes us feels good, and here he uses that power not just to make us dance around the room, but to heal our wounds.
Unlike many of the songs we’ve heard about September 11, The Rising offers no easy answers, and no intimation of vengeful anger at the enemy — quite the opposite, actually. “Better ask questions before you shoot” he warns on “Lonesome Day”. “That taste on your tongue don’t easily slip away”. (The album was written and recorded in the weeks immediately after the attacks and before shooting was a foregone conclusion.) “World’s Apart” is a remarkable song, rising above its Sting-like Sufi choir intro to strike at the heart of more than one matter.
Sometimes the truth just ain’t enough
Or it’s too much in times like this
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
May the living let us in before the dead tear us apart
In one stanza, he offers both a prayer for peace and an explanation of the rash of “terror sex” that swept through New York and across the nation in the wake of the attacks, and perhaps also an explanation for the falling national divorce rates in those same weeks. “We’re in this moment to live,” he continues, “then it’s all just dust and dark / Let’s let love give what it gives.” Bruce has often sounded astute before, but rarely has he sounded so wise.
There are misses on the record, too, like the thoroughly embarrassing “Mary’s Place,” or “Let’s Be Friends,” which essentially retreads “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.” With 15 tracks that sprawl out over 72 minutes, at some point we’ve had enough of The Rising, already. But I can forgive Bruce that, because in this frenzy of creativity, he has found more soul than he’s put into music in years, and with the reunion of the E-Street Band, maybe he thought he had too much of a good thing to let go of it in a mere 45 minutes.
This, of course, raises the question of where he’s been and what he’s been doing for 15 years, when he could have been making music like this all along. That’s another question entirely, and would be the subject of a much longer, much more speculative article. For now, though, we have this. Let’s just be thankful that when America needs its consummate citizen to step up to the mike and give us voice, to explore our souls and heal our hearts and move our butts, Bruce Springsteen is still there.