If you’re looking for classic Springsteen, look no farther than “Further On (Up the Road)”, a rocker about companionship fueled by three guitars, a relentless beat and swampy harmonica. The song was written during his reunion tour with the E Street Band in 2000, before anyone knew if he’d ever record another full-length album with his former bandmates again.
Faith was rewarded but the landscape had changed when the band met in Atlanta early this year to record their follow up to Born in the USA. Springsteen had already agreed to work with a new producer, a musician named Brendan O’Brien known for polishing hard rock acts like Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. The biggest change came when terrorist attacks in the Northeast altered life in 21st century America.
For a writer known for mining the dark recesses of “a runaway American dream”, as Springsteen once famously sang, it’s no surprise that the whole of The Rising tries to pick up the pieces of a post-September 11th world. From the opening anthem “Lonesome Day”, to the stinging title track, to the closing R&B soul of “My City of Ruins” — perhaps the masterpiece here in its newfound arrangement — nearly every song is infused with duty and suffering, tempered by hope and spiritual resurrection.
While Springsteen thankfully avoids jingoistic sentiments, one of the album’s obvious touchstones is “Empty Sky”, a countryish ballad addressing common feelings after the attack:
“I want a kiss from your lips / I want an eye for an eye / I woke up this morning to an empty sky.”
The song moves along almost at a monotone pace, as if he is still in shock, and the effect is powerful, especially when his wailing harmonica punctuates the air. Springsteen formerly sang about getting to the Promised Land, and here he sounds like he almost doesn’t have the heart to care.
The first single from the album, a metaphor-rich narrative called “The Rising”, is an account of a fireman or disaster worker losing his life in the World Trade Center, though he wisely avoids journalistic detail, preferring instead to sing of a man “wearin’ the cross” of his calling while riding on “wheels of fire” to answer a call. A more specific account of the day, the maudlin “Into the Fire”, is not nearly as successful, because of a relatively plodding musical arrangement and a chorus sounding like a lame benediction. It is a rare misstep on a very carefully thought out album, which refines the E Street Band sound with ample cellos and the prominent addition of violinist Soozie Tyrell.
The song that sticks out like a sore thumb, both musically and thematically, is “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)”, a sunny sing-a-long that’s fun to listen to, almost recalling the Jackson 5, but just doesn’t fit here. Perhaps he felt it was needed, considering the how often the mortal coil is broken on these songs, only to be replaced by bleak realizations. If anything the album is an embarrassment of riches, a 15-song collection ranging from hard rock (“Countin’ on a Miracle”, “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”) to acoustic ballads (“Paradise”, “Nothing Man”) to anthems (“Lonesome Day”, the title track) to experiments (“Worlds Apart”, “The Fuse”). Much of the band’s work in albums like Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River is recalled throughout. A song that could be the sequel to Springsteen’s desolate classic “Point Blank” is the sadly tender “You’re Missing”, which details the emotions of someone coming to terms with the sudden loss of a loved one. The cello-and-piano centered song is almost as spare as Springsteen’s more recent work, yet Federici’s roller rink organ towards the end of the song slides right in as if recalling happier days gone by on the boardwalk.
In particular “Worlds Apart”, infused with the devotional music of Islamic mystics, is the biggest departure here. The song opens with qawwali singer Asif Ali Khan, who is joined by Springsteen singing of a relationship seemingly doomed by dual cultures that cannot mesh. Practically pleading to his lover, “may the living let us in, before the dead tear us apart”, Springsteen acknowledges the uphill battle facing couples of different backgrounds while his guitar screams in frustration.
Yet it’s the return of his comrades from the glory days, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, guitarists Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, bassist Garry Tallent, pianist Roy Bittan, organist Danny Federici, drummer Max Weinberg and (on background vocals and not guitar) wife Patti Scialfa, that’s part of the story here. In one fell swoop Springsteen has released an album that is chillingly relevant even as much of it, especially the over ballyhooed “Mary’s Place”, is unabashedly anachronistic. He’s trying to please old fans, even though these modern war stories are as far removed from the lives of Rosalita and the Magic Rat as can be. Most tellingly, he’s still trying to cross that bridge — the one connecting people in commonality and shared experience — with rock music and at this point, no one does it better.