The heart sags at the prospect of pop stars weighing in on the subject of September 11th. Which of them could possibly transmute the fiery horror of that day with the force of their art, or offer up anything beyond a dismal trivialization?
The answer, it turns out, is Bruce Springsteen. With his new album, The Rising, Springsteen wades into the wreckage and pain of that horrendous event and emerges bearing fifteen songs that genuflect with enormous grace before the sorrows that drift in its wake. The small miracle of his accomplishment is that at no point does he give vent to the anger felt by so many Americans: the hunger for revenge. The music is often fierce in its execution, but in essence it is a requiem for those who perished in that sudden inferno, and those who died trying to save them. Springsteen grandly salutes their innocence and their courage, and holds out a hand to those who mourn them, who seek the comfort of an explanation for the inexplicable:
Picture's on the nightstand, TV's on in the den
Your house is waiting . . . for you to walk in
But you're missing, you're missing
It's wonderful to hear these finely calibrated lyrics borne aloft by the E Street Band, brought back at last for a record that rocks as broadly as Born in the U.S.A., the last studio album for which they all gathered, eighteen years ago. However heavy of heart the new songs may be, this three-guitar incarnation of the band (with Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Springsteen — never a slouch in the screaming-guitar department himself) propels them with resounding power. Like Born in the U.S.A. before it, The Rising sounds unlike any other record of its time; in an era of rock murk and heavy synthetics, it flaunts its hard, bright guitars and positively walloping beats.
Springsteen addresses the spiritual dislocations of the World Trade Center attack — and the unquestioning bravery of the rescuers who lost their lives in it — with "Into the Fire," a song that starts out with the simplicity of a white-gospel hymn ("I need your kiss/But love and duty called you someplace higher"), then blossoms into a luminous anthem:
May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love
Elsewhere, Springsteen acknowledges the fury that welled up in many bereft New Yorkers after the destruction of Manhattan's two most towering landmarks: "I want a kiss from your lips/I want an eye for an eye/I woke up this morning to an empty sky." And in the lush, haunted ballad "Nothing Man," he seems to give voice to the emptiness and incomprehension felt by some of that day's surviving heroes:
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
Not every song on the album was written in the wake of September 11th: "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," for example, with its big, meaty riff and strutting lyrics. "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)," with its entirely unexpected beach-beat bounce, wouldn't seem at first listen to fit in here. But every song on the album is unified, to an extent, by a mood of romantic longing and a yearning for human connection. In the end, they all flow together.
As with Born in the U.S.A., the title of this album may mislead some who hear it, particularly those intent on retaliation, which Springsteen himself shows little interest in contemplating. His concern is not with a national uprising but with a rising above: the transcending of ever-mounting losses and ancient hatreds.
His most inspired gesture comes in "Worlds Apart," a track that writhes with the sounds of qawwali, the intense, God-conjuring, life-affirming vocal music of the mystical Sufi sect of Islam — a branch of the faith much detested (and often suppressed) by death-trumpeting fundamentalist imams. Hearing ecstatic qawwali ululations underpinning a song in which Springsteen sings "May the living let us in/Before the dead tear us apart" is a truly soul-stirring experience.
Bruce Springsteen has gathered many a superlative over the years. His most resonant works stand as milestones in the lives of millions of fans. Even for him, though, The Rising, with its bold thematic concentration and penetrating emotional focus, is a singular triumph. I can't think of another album in which such an abundance of great songs might be said to seem the least of its achievements.