Springsteen's new album speaks of human tragedy and overcoming loss.
IN 1980, on the night immediately after John Lennon was shot on the streets, Bruce Springsteen had a concert in Philadelphia. "It's a hard world that makes you live with things that are unlivable," he said at the beginning of the concert. "And it's hard to come out here and play tonight, but there's nothing else to do."
When the tragedy of September 11 happened, Springsteen had already started writing and composing another album of rock tunes. His home county, Monmouth, had lost over 150 of its people in the Twin Towers tragedy. Springsteen did his share of fundraisers and concerts. He spoke to the survivors and the families left behind and discovered, from the "Portraits of Grief" in the New York Times, how many of his fans and neighbours he had lost to the killings. And within days, he was also writing new songs.
Shattering human tragedy and the cleansing of the hurt and pain thereafter have always, in a cold blooded commercial sense, had tremendous potential as a human-interest source for art. But the obvious pitfalls, of making the effort mawkish, sentimental and overly sanctimonious, are always there.
In Springsteen's case, if he is to be accused of judiciously using the occasion, he comes across, at the same time, as his usual self honest and sympathetic, kind and hopeful, ultimately optimistic. Extreme cynics might say that the events of September 11 provided an otherwise intellectually bankrupt singer-songwriter with a chance to bring out a successful mega-album against the backdrop of such immense tragedy.
Nevertheless, we could remember that Springsteen has not recorded an album in seven years! The more sympathetic would say that this is the best form of pop art: a major artiste reacting to a disaster in his own way, and being a good neighbour to the families who lost their loved ones to the airplanes. They reached out, and the Boss was there.
While Springsteen has, admittedly, always lacked the lyrical range, cynicism and sardonic edge of Bob Dylan, he is not short of one quality: feeling. He has ample quantities of it. Feeling and honesty. And so, although The Boss's lyrics never manage to transcend the ordinary to become something magical, his heartfelt outpourings do make you sit up, tap your feet, take notice and sometimes even sing along.
Springsteen's last studio album "The Ghost of Tom Joad", a heartfelt tribute to Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck, which was released in 1995, went on to win the Grammy for the Best Folk Album. But that was folk; and it is only with his new album "The Rising", coming seven years later, that he returns to his original roots in rock 'n' roll. This album marks another first, as Springsteen records his first studio album with the E Street Band ever since he made the loud and vastly successful "Born in the USA" in 1984. There are two aspects to "The Rising" the music, and the message. The music, although nothing very new, is almost uniformly good.
The only piece where Springsteen tries something different, however, falls quite flat: the half-hearted Sufi Qawwali fusion in "Worlds Apart", with Asif Ali Khan, is an unmitigated disaster.
Springsteen is no Peter Gabriel; indeed, he's not even Sting. He's just The Boss. As for fusion, one has only to listen to the Eddie Vedder-Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan combination in the soundtrack of the Susan Sarandon-Sean Penn film "Dead Man Walking", to realise the difference.
While the songs in "The Rising" are considerably less blue-collar than Springsteen's earlier work, they hold a more universal appeal, encompassing loss, grief, anger, acceptance, faith and hope. Though some songs are very specific to September 11 such as "Into the Fire" told from the point of view of a fire-fighter's widow the rest can speak for any human tragedy, and the enduring effort of the human spirit to accept and overcome such loss.
Indeed, the last track in the album "My City of Ruins" was written much before September 11: it is about the state of disrepair of Springsteen's beloved Asbury Park, NJ. Warts and all, the songs do actually flow together. There are almost no proper names in "The Rising" (except for Al's Barbecue and Mary's Place); the language is simple, sparse and even shallow at places.
The philosophy of the album seems to be redemption through chant-like repetition repetition of commonplace motifs like fire, dust and sky; feelings love and loss; words like hope, faith and strength. The tone is almost always politically correct, only occasionally verging on the cloying. Nevertheless, there are a few moments where thoughts of revenge and retribution do raise their heads, such as "Lonesome Day" ("A little revenge and this too shall pass") and "Empty Sky" ("I want a kiss from your lips/I want an eye for an eye").
Springsteen does manage to achieve remarkable intensity in songs like "Nothing Man", about a shattered rescue worker ("Come on take my hand/I am the nothing man") and "Paradise", about a suicide bomber ("I hold my breath and close my eyes/And I wait for paradise"). The depiction of loss and longing in "Empty Sky" and "Missing" are heartbreakingly real and beautiful: "Picture's on the nightstand, TV's on in the den/Your house is waiting for you to walk in/But you're missing, you're missing."
The sheer physicality of "The Fuse" is also powerful. However, the piece-de-resistance of the album is the rollicking "Mary's Place", which is a joyous and pulsating tribute to life and surviving, in spite of the song starting out hampered with puerile lyrics like: "I got seven pictures of Buddha/The prophet's on my tongue".
In the end, what is compelling about "The Rising" is its melodies, rather than its words, which are simple in parts but shallow and sentimental in others. A year after September 11, let us be glad that the human spirit has come through; and let us also be glad for music, and rock 'n' roll, and that Springsteen has rediscovered his rock 'n' roll voice.
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