Bruce Springsteen: The Rising

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THE RISING, Bruce Springsteen (Columbia)    

Most of rock’s icons have either never wanted to be normal, or couldn’t be if they tried. Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Eminem - unregenerate outsiders all, whose massive popularity has been due precisely to the way they have expressed a point-of-view not commonly held by the man in the street. If audiences have loved them, it is for their daring to be different, not for their empathy with the common man.

Bruce Springsteen is almost unique in this pantheon for being – at least in principle – an ordinary guy. The hero in his songs has often seemed to want nothing more than to be able to say he’s done an honest day’s work, and Bruce has repeatedly found in this figure a kind of nobility.

Of course his hero was often thwarted, and so was Springsteen. After all, no one who has channeled so many blinding rock ‘n’ roll anthems could possibly be an ordinary guy. And for the past decade or more he has been an oddly displaced figure; super-famous yet seldom heard, alive yet relegated to history. Aware of his own predicament, he has dithered over his identity. He broke up his band, then put them back together. He recorded entire albums, then scrapped them, while the little music he did release only reflected his displacement, bearing scant relevance or resemblance to the type of sounds that were dominating the pop landscape. Neither the bombastic double-flop of Human Touch/Lucky Town nor the Guthrie-noir of The Ghost of Tom Joad connected like the glory days of Born in the USA.

September 11 gave Bruce a new excuse to exist. As Springsteen told it to journalist Jon Pareles, his epiphany came a few days after the Twin Towers attack. He was pulling out of a parking lot in his native New Jersey when a fan in another vehicle recognised him, rolled down the window and hollered, “We need you!” Sounds corny, but it’s not hard to believe that an incident like this could galvanise Bruce into writing his most purposeful record in nearly 20 years.

After all, the guy in the New Jersey parking lot has always been Bruce’s muse. Whether it was racing in the streets, contemplating infidelity, or pondering the scrapheap of American labour, it was always that blue-collar voice that resounded in Springsteen’s songs. But for all his attachment to his working class roots, the longer Bruce lived with fame and fortune the harder it was for him to hear that voice.

But behind the images and rhetoric of September 11 were a whole lot of human-scale stories and tragedies, ordinary people responding to – and finding themselves at the centre of - extraordinary events. September 11 gave Bruce’s parking lot guy a whole lot of new thoughts, questions, prayers, and Bruce heard them all.

Written quickly in the wake of those events, the songs on The Rising are full of falling skies and bloody streets, burning buildings and clouds of pink vapour, darkness, fire, dust and missing persons. What would once have been garish metaphor is now reportage. This doesn’t stop it from often sounding like cliches; still, they are the type of cliché that Springsteen has always been able to turn into a radio-shaking anthem, of which there are a whole new bunch here. And cliché or not, it’s hard to listen to Springsteen’s stoic, soulful voice here and not be moved.

Springsteen’s noble working man experiences a deeper loss than ever before in “You’re Missing” or “Empty Sky”, and is elevated to new heights of glory – as a fireman, of course – in “Into the Fire”. At his most anguished and uncomprehending, his narrator demands “an eye for an eye” in exchange for the kisses that have been taken away from him. But in spite of the strident tones, this is not a war cry. In fact, these songs are characterised by an almost-desperate optimism, as though Springsteen is determined to will good out of bad. “May your strength give us strength…” he chants repeatedly in “Into the Fire”. “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright…” (“Lonesome Day”); “Come on, rise up, come on, rise up” (“My City Of Ruins”).

With his E Street band and - for the first time - Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien, he’s made an album that sounds colossal, yet muted. The anthemic punch of vintage Bruce is tempered with string quartets, acoustic guitars, the occasional solo fiddle or cello, as if to unreservedly rock would be undignified under the circumstances. Yet he still manages “Waiting On A Sunny Day” - a big Spectorian pop song in the mode of “Hungry Heart” complete with Clarence Clemons’ best bleating sax, and “Mary’s Place”, an R&B song about partying in the face of heartbreak that nods to both Van Morrison and Sam Cooke.

Musically, the only real lemon is the pairing with Asif Ali Khan’s Pakistani qawaali group for “World’s Apart”. Never comfortable with any style he hadn’t first heard on a New Jersey jukebox, Bruce’s self-conscious attempt to show the unity of people over politics is a well-intentioned disaster. The modal sounds of Asif’s group that introduce the track are lovely but hopelessly out of place, and when the E-Street band come crashing in like an air raid on Kabul, the Islamic musicians are drowned out altogether. The unfortunate symbolism is surely not what Springsteen intended.

Mostly though, The Rising sounds reassuringly familiar. Somebody needs him, Bruce has been told, and he has taken the plea to heart, producing just the kind of album he believes is required of him. Bruce has faith in the people; it will be interesting to see if they still have faith in him.

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