Wednesday, August 17, 2005

This is a piece I wrote after listening to The Rising in 2002. Forgot about it after I wrote it. Never even sent it anywhere.

Bruce Springsteen’s new album hits home

The last decade of the previous century was creatively indifferent for Bruce Springsteen. He came up with a few outstanding tracks (“Streets Of Philadelphia”, “Secret Garden”, etc.), a decent album (The Ghost Of Tom Joad) but could not produce an album’s worth of consistent magic that one associated with him in the seventies and eighties. It almost seemed as if he had run out of material, as if a happy family life had blunted his edge, as if the troubled world around him had saturated his observational and expressive powers. It almost seemed like he needed some kind of catalyst to get him started again.

9/11/01 provided that. The trauma of that day was too intense to make sense of immediately for a lot of American artists (especially those from the New York area), but the tragic events of that day certainly seemed to have stirred up one of the great songwriters of our times, and reawakened his muse. Less than a year from that landmark day, comes his new album – The Rising.

It has that characteristic Springsteen quality – of delving into complex feelings, however negative and try to make sense of them. Of transforming them into something communicable and through the positive driving force of rock and roll music perhaps even begin some kind of healing process. The songs deal with the grief of everyday people who try to cope and seem to say emphatically – we understand, you are not alone. Most importantly, there is no self-pity in the album, or blind rage – the two traps material like this is always susceptible to.

The album begins with “Lonesome Day”, a song that may have seemed clichéd if done by a lesser artist, but Springsteen’s vocals along with the E-Street Band’s characteristic controlled intensity makes it an apt opening that sets the tone of the album. “Into The Fire” is clearly dedicated to the firemen who lost their lives that day. The song starts out with a description of what they must have experienced around them, and graduates to a hymn-like plea; it works very well. The quiet “Nothing Man” evokes the Tunnel Of Love album musically, with that same empathy that has been Springsteen’s hallmark throughout his career. “Empty Sky” is another point of view – unalloyed anger, dripped in grief, that the average American must have felt that day. “Worlds Apart” uses a Nusrat-soundalike to begin the song which then explodes into a furious rocker, conveying perhaps the plea of the common people if the two sides in this furious war – “let love give what it gives”…The title track and “My City Of Ruins” are two magnificently rousing tracks that again, would not have been easy for a lesser artist to pull off. “Mary’s Place” is a beauty, its extremely catchy tune a red herring for its theme – of someone trying to cope with a spouse’s loss.

The masterpiece of the album is “You’re Missing” – the song’s theme obvious in its title. The lyrics are evocative and simple, the music haunting. The cello right through the song conveys the gnawing pain of losing someone close, the organ at the end (again evoking the Tunnel Of Love album) almost seems to be attempting some kind of closure. Amazingly tuneful, despite its very sad thought, this one’s a perfect example of what we have to look forward to from the great rock and roll songwriters of our generation who are just beginning to enter their fifties and sixties. Springsteen could not perhaps have written this song, and arranged it the way he has, even ten years ago. There is a strange kind of wisdom in the song.

The album has a few songs which don’t necessarily stick to the 9/11 theme, but don’t seem out-of-place despite that. The terrific White Gospelish ‘Waiting On A Sunny Day” is the standout among those. These tracks also suggest that two Springsteens have come to the party this time – the brooding Nebraska and Tunnel of Love Springsteen and the extroverted, exuberant Born In The USA Springsteen. This is a first in his body of work, in many respects.

Besides being totally different from the music being released around us, The Rising has to rate as among Springsteen’s finest works, which is hard to believe at first listen. In any case, this is not an album that you can hear casually, not initially anyway. It grows on you, very emphatically. Six-seven listens later, maybe after you’ve determined your favourite tracks in the album, ask yourself how good the album really is. The answer might surprise you.

Jaideep Varma
September 2002

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