I’ve avoided talking in detail about The Rising but not because there’s nothing left to say. To start with, someone needs to get around to the music and relating it to Springsteen’s previous work, particularly the wordy, rhythmically static, melodically parched recent work. To me, the rejuvenation that produced The Rising resembles Bob Dylan’s recent records and U2’s All That You Can’t Leave. Each of these is anchored in the artist’s classic musical approach, with slight modifications that in some sense-this is hardest to hear with Dylan, easiest with Bruce-modernize it. On The Rising, Brendan O’Brien provides the key by getting get Bruce to rely on guitar, rather than letting the keyboards dominate.
I heard The Rising about 25 times before I ever read the lyric sheet (doing which cost me my favorite line, “Musta been your science degree,” which turned out to be merely “musta been you sighin’ so deep”). My favorites tracks here are “Sunny Day,” “Mary’s Place,” “Worlds Apart,” “You’re Missing,” and “My City of Ruins,” each except “Misising” registering as sound more than story. I still don’t know or care very much about what “Worlds Apart” says; I do care about the way the voices and instruments crash into each other.
Most of what’s been written about The Rising mentions the music only in passing but set these lyrics down as poetry and they aren’t very interesting. As statements about 9/11 or 9/12, you could even call them evasive. Nevertheless, the lyrics of “You’re Missing” and “Paradise” rank with Springsteen’s best. They sing beautifully–there are no false steps, no attempts to cram too many syllables into a line (“hy-dree-ot-ic acid” anyone?). Bruce does the best singing of his career here, which can be demonstrated by comparing songs like “Mary’s Place,” “Sunny Day” and “Countin’ on a Miracle” with their obvious antecedents–“Rosalita,” “Hungry Heart,” “Leap of Faith” (the last a stretch).
The evasions make Springsteen’s point. Fans commonly explain that The Rising’s topic is not 9/11 but 9/12. But that’s not really it, either. The 9/11 attacks and fragments of their aftermath provide Springsteen a setting but The Rising isn’t trying to be Guernica or even Born in the U.S.A. The Rising’s really returns Springsteen to one of his central preoccupations, the war about choosing life or death that rages in his everyman.
Springsteen eschews the politics of the attacks in part because he’s pretty conservative personally, but also because they’re a distraction from his real interests. Compare “Paradise” to Steve Earle’s controversial “John Walker Blues.” Both do the same thing, which is restore humanity to a character presumed to be inhuman-in this case, the suicide bomber of the first verse. But Springsteen’s focused on a whole other drama. In the second verse, he unequivocally equates the bomber with a character mourning a loved one. There are a batch of different ways to read the third verse-it could be either of the characters in the first two verses, it could be both of them, it could be anybody trapped by a false vision of paradise, who dives into the treacherous waters.
What matters is that the swimmer in that verse lets himself see that paradise is empty. So he fights back into the sunlight of the everyday.
The next thing you know, he’s back on the night-lit streets of Asbury Park, another symbol of false paradise, where young men rot away without anyone’s second glance. If these men’s strength gave you strength, their hope gave you hope, their love gave you love, you’d be hollowed out.
Does Springsteen understand what it really means to encourage such people to “rise up”? It’ll take an album good enough to follow in this one’s footsteps to find out. Meantime, we are left, as always at the end of a gospel song, with some choices to make for ourselves.
(what’s playing in my office)
1. The Rising, Bruce Springsteen (Sony)-Everybody who understands why that catfish dances on the end of his line, raise your hand. The rest of you, back to the last verse of “Paradise.”
2. Jerusalem, Steve Earle (E Squared)-The sound goes back to “Copperhead Road.” The politics come out of a future we’d hoped to avoid.
3. Adult World, Wayne Kramer (MuscleTone).
4. White Lightnin’ Struck the Pine, Cedell Davis (Fast Horse Recordings)-The most rockin’ record Peter Buck ever played on, for sure. Maybe the deepest musical statement of the Mississippi hill country blues aesthetic, too.
5. Rockin’ the Blues, Wynonie Harris (ProperUK) 4 disc box set from the greatest R&B shouter of the late ’40s, originator of “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” among many others. Bargain price–$25 or less. (Try rootsandrhythm.com)
6. Plenty Good Lovin’, Sam Moore (2KSounds/EMI)
7. Imagine, Eva Cassidy (Blix Street)-Cassidy finds angles on overdone songs like “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” and “Who Knows Where the Times Goes, even “Tennessee Waltz,” that refreshes our interest in them, as well as her, an achievement both modest and monumental Here, she gets that far even with Billie’s “You’ve Changed” (though not the title track).
8. Easy, Kelly Willis (Rykodisc)
9. Down in the Alley, Alvin Youngblood-Hart (Memphis International)
10. Jesus Is the Name: The Tender Female Gospel 1947-1952 (P-Vine, Japan; rootsandrhythm.com) – Features Willie Mae Ford Smith and at least a dozen other great singers you’ve never even heard *of*.
11. Essential Collection, Shorty Long (Spectrum UK)-Funkiest of all Motown artists, as in “We servin’ egg foo yung and barbecue, and then chicken’n’dumplings ‘n’ kidney stew, ‘n’ then heap big fun ’til the break of dawn…Pull a shotgun on the rooster and draw him to crow.” But mainly, it’s the bass lines.
12. It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, Pam Tillis (Epic/Lucky Dog)-That means she gets to sing “Detroit City” and “I Ain’t Never,” as well as another 11 songs by her daddy.
13. 1000 Kisses, Patty Griffin (ATO) 14. Viva El Mariachi: Nati Cano’s Mariachi Los Camperos (Smithsonian Folkways)
15. American Breakdown, Troy Campbell (M. Ray)
16. A Cellarful of Motown: Rarest Motown Grooves (Motown)
17. Stax Instrumentals, Booker T. & the MGs/The Mar-Keys (Ace UK)
18. A History of Garage and Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-1975, Vol. 2 (Shangri-La Projects)-Sixties Seattle, with okra.
19. Hard Candy, Counting Crows (Geffen)
20. Irony Lives, Paul Krassner (Artemis) 20. One All, Neil Finn (Netwerk)
Dave Marsh coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. Marsh is the author of The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org