The 1980s are still with us. The men who ran the country in the era of Reagan and Bush Sr. have largely held on to their power into this new millennium, and continue to run our country with the same policies and prejudices that they wielded when we Yalies were babes. Our country, in all its progress, has not changed that much in the past 20 years.
Perhaps that is what makes the songs on Bruce Springsteen’s summer release, “The Rising,” sound so immediately familiar, so instantly accessible. Bruce was the voice of the ’80s, releasing the seminal album of that decade, “Born in the U.S.A.” — a record that remains a monument to the disenfranchised American working man with rock ‘n’ roll in his veins, caught in the bureaucratic cloaks and daggers of that time.
“The Rising” is in every way as timely now as “Born in the U.S.A.” was at its release in 1984. It is a perfectly toned album, pitched with sorrow and joy, exquisitely produced, passionately performed. An album that only Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band could muster.
Is this review boring you yet? That’s probably because you’ve heard all these praises laden upon “The Rising” before. Upon its release, the album was embraced almost unanimously as an instant American classic, an achievement as epic, in its way, as “The Grapes of Wrath.” Suddenly this summer, the Boss was back, now distinguished in his 50s, a poet laureate with an electric guitar. Suddenly, everyone was listening. And everyone was chomping at the bit to mold “The Rising” into exactly what American needed: proof that the church of rock ‘n’ roll still stood within the rubble of ground zero; proof that God still lived and rocked.
Pretty heavy stuff. And I was among the first to doubt the hype, my love for the Boss notwithstanding. Hearing that Springsteen had released his “Sept. 11 album” made me dubious of the enterprise. I felt like I had hit my saturation point with the sub-genre of Sept. 11 songs with Paul McCartney’s atrocious “Freedom.”
What makes “The Rising” such a transcendent and ultimately triumphant album is the fact that it is far from what it was trumped up to be on “The Today Show.” It is not simply “the Sept. 11 album.”
This is foremost a deeply personal piece of music, and its words need not be stamped against the context of a singular event. Take the album’s magnificent closing track, “My City of Ruins.” Despite the suggestive title and lyrics that are easily applicable to the destruction of the World Trade Towers, this song predates Sept. 11. It was written about Bruce’s home town of Asbury Park, N.J. The fact that it is uncannily fit to the scarring of New York City is only a testament to the beauty of the song’s universal quality. This is a song about any city, American or elsewhere. This could be a song about Kabul.
“You’re Missing” contains the haunting choral lines: “Everything is everything, but you’re missing.” True to itself, the song seems to be about everything all at once. It is a piece in the abstract about the twin towers and their surreal removal from the New York City skyline– and it is a piece about an ex-girlfriend. Or a lost loved one. Or a runaway dog. With words at once succinct and sprawling, this is a song that will last long after “The Rising” is considered the “Sept. 11 album.”
And then there is the issue of the rocking. Does “The Rising,” with all its introspection and gravitas, kick some old-fashioned butt? Thankfully, it does more than its share. The album opens with the irrepressible bounce of “Lonesome Day,” a song that gets more fun every time you listen to it. “The Fuse” is a perfect piece of rock ‘n’ roll; a building flame of a tune that restrains itself until it rolls into a final thrashing explosion. “Mary’s Place” sounds like much earlier, jauntier Springsteen — a rollicking, full-bodied party tune that’s a refreshing break from the solemnity of the rest of the album.
And still, it is nearly impossible to pick a highlight from “The Rising.” I can only choose a personal favorite:
“Nothing Man” does for the New York Police Department and New York Fire Department what the title track on “Born in the U.S.A.” did for Vietnam veterans; lending them a singular soulful voice, providing them an anthem unlike any other that has surfaced in the wake of their efforts. Bruce sings:
I don’t remember how I felt/
I never thought I’d live to read about myself/
In my hometown paper/
How my brave young life was forever changed/
In a misty cloud of pink vapor.
This isn’t a placating “thank you.” Nor is it a call to arms. Nor is it a “message song.” It is an aching, lingering soft song that expresses the numbness of aftermath without rushing to make sense of a senseless act, without cheapening the experiences of these men and women with a hummable chorus. As the title suggests, it is a song that excels in its refrain.
By cutting through the specific to the emotional center of the swirling issues of modern America, Springsteen has crafted an album that is more than timely. It is timeless.