My Heart sank when I heard that Bruce Springsteen had praised George W. Bush’s management of the “war on terrorism.” “The war in Afghanistan was handled well,” Springsteen told the Times of London in July. “It was deliberative, which I wasn’t counting on. I expected a lot less from this administration.”
Damn. From the man who very publicly stood up to Ronald Reagan in the middle of the Reagan decade, admiration for a smirking, blue-blooded frat boy as far removed from what Springsteen stands for as anyone or anything I can think of.
True, it was a backhanded compliment, and as far as I know, Springsteen hasn’t gone any further in celebrating Bush’s “unexpected” talent for ordering the fiercest military machine in history to bomb one of the world’s poorest countries into submission.
But he hasn’t taken it back either. And in the dozens of interviews and TV appearances during the super-hyped release of his new album, Springsteen kept his political thoughts on most every subject pretty quiet. That’s a statement in itself, because The Rising is directly concerned with the event that defined politics for the last year and more to come–the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington.
There’s no hint of jingoism or calls for vengeance, of course. The Rising is a dignified and powerful tribute to the victims of September 11 and their family and friends who survived them. Springsteen has said that he thought it was his duty to make this album–both to the victims of the attacks, for whom his music had been a part of their life, and to those left behind, as a way of helping them come to terms with their grief. It’s hard to think of an artist better equipped to try.
But what looms over the result is what’s not there–the virtual absence of any reference to how the tragedy of September 11 was exploited as an excuse for war, at home and abroad. It’s as if Springsteen censored himself out of respect for the victims–that he decided to avoid the complexities that went with trying to understand the wider issues in order to stay focused on the main task of “healing.”
This narrowness is uncharacteristic for Springsteen. After all, here’s someone who responded to having his first top 10 single in 1981 (the party-all-night rocker “Hungry Heart”) by recording a solo acoustic album called Nebraska that, rather than celebrate good times, magnificently gave voice to people ground down by society and driven to desperation.
Springsteen isn’t really a writer of protest songs, but he knows how to get a political point across. Thus, when Ronald Reagan tried to claim “Born in the USA,” a song about the wrecked life of a Vietnam veteran, Springsteen not only spoke out, but he responded musically. In concerts, the song was stripped of its stadium rock anthem arrangement, and instead played in a haunted musical setting that made it impossible to mistake it as anything but a cry of anger.
Bucking the trend for millionaire rock stars, Springsteen became more explicitly political as he got older. His last studio album of new songs came out seven long years ago, but it was a stunner–The Ghost of Tom Joad, another mostly acoustic set that chronicled the lives of immigrants and the working poor. Springsteen’s skill in telling these stories and the layers of understanding that he brings to them are breathtaking–like nothing short of early Bob Dylan.
So is “American Skin (41 Shots),” the song inspired by the police murder of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo in New York City that provoked ranting from the NYPD when Springsteen began performing it a couple years ago.
This is what’s missing from The Rising.
It’s still a very good album. Musically, Springsteen and the E Street Band sound great, mining their whole history together to incorporate a wider range of styles than ever before (though it would have been nice if the careful arrangements and production had let up a bit more often). And Springsteen’s lyrics are impressive as always at capturing the emotions of people ripped out of their day-to-day lives by a reality that overwhelms them.
The few clinkers come when the two things–music and words–are out of step. On “Empty Sky,” for example, a story of inconsolable loss (“I woke up this morning, I could barely breathe/Just an empty impression/In the bed where you used to be”) is strangely set to a generic country rock shuffle.
On the best songs, though, conflict is the theme. “Worlds Apart” is about an American in love with a Middle Eastern native, maybe in Afghanistan, who dreams of letting “blood build a bridge, over mountains draped in stars/I’ll meet you on the ridge, between these worlds apart.” To capture the tension, Springsteen uses Middle Eastern Qawwali vocal music clashing with rocking guitars, his own voice bouncing between the two.
Likewise, “Paradise” puts two conflicting stories side by side to draw out the connections–one about a Palestinian suicide bomber, the other about a survivor of September 11 who considers suicide to join their spouse.
It’s no coincidence that these two particular standouts reach beyond the personal to grapple, in one way or another, with the wider issues surrounding September 11. Springsteen does powerfully capture the suffering of family and friends after September 11. But this album is dominated by the feel of a eulogy–the kind of thing you say to people consumed by grief.
There’s nothing wrong with eulogies. But nearly a year has gone by–and with it, a U.S. war that killed thousands in the name of “justice”; the detention of more than 1,000 people in the U.S., most for no other reason than that they happened to be young men of Arab descent; the buildup for a new war on Iraq that will cause unspeakable horrors; and the exploitation of 9/11 to serve every conceivable point on the right-wing agenda. A lot more needs to be said about September 11, and Springsteen, as much as any songwriter around, has the skills to say it.
In listening to this album, I thought about Judy Keane, whose husband was killed in World Trade Center. A few days after the attacks, she organized a vigil of 5,000 people outside her home in Waterford, Conn.–to call, in her husband’s name, on Bush not to bomb Afghanistan.
That was “courage you can understand,” too, but it’s not a part of this Rising. And its absence is definitely felt.