Equally significant, The Rising is the first Springsteen album ever to be produced by an outsider. Springsteen's camp over the years has been one of the most tightly knit in the rock world. Beginning with his first album, 1973's Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., Springsteen has had a hand in producing every one of his albums. His only production collaborators have been people very close to him, such as his manager, Jon Landau, Van Zandt and Chuck Plotkin. They are notorious perfectionists. The time it takes them to make an album can be epic, up to three years; just as epic are the conversations between Springsteen and Landau about the nuances of a single take. But for The Rising, Springsteen handed the reins to Atlanta producer Brendan O'Brien, whose credits include albums by Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine. The new record was finished in seven and a half weeks.
The Rising is largely Springsteen's response to the tragedy of September 11th. And though it has its stark moments — the most devastating song on the album is, in fact, the solo Springsteen track "Paradise" — The Rising is as expansive and uplifting as Springsteen's best work with the E Street Band, accentuating in particular the band's gospel roots. Rather than whisper over an acoustic guitar, Springsteen takes us to the river and wonders if somebody can say amen. The title song, and first single, sums up the feel of many of the album's fourteen other tracks. It ostensibly unfolds from the point of view of a New York firefighter entering one of the burning towers. Yet, as on many songs on The Rising, Springsteen takes an unexpected turn, lyrically and musically, moving from a dark opening verse — "Can't see nothin' in front of me/Can't see nothin' coming up behind" — into a hand-clapping, sanctified chorus, as the literal image of a man rising up a smoke-filled stairwell merges into a religious image of ascension.
Like the album as a whole, the song uses the events of September 11th as a metaphorical springboard. Images of rising — rising smoke, rising spirits, rising waters, even (yes) rising of a sexual sort — recur in several songs, serving as a formidable counterpoint to that other image, etched into our collective consciousness, replayed endlessly on every network, of falling, of collapse.
Springsteen acknowledges the album's gospel element, and as further evidence points to "Into the Fire," which happens to be the first song he wrote after September 11th — he began working on it a few days after the attack. It covers ground similar to the title track, and also features a chorus that doubles as a prayer: "May your strength give us strength/May your hope give us hope. . . ."
"When we got that song down," Springsteen says, "it brought the whole thing home immediately, because what you get on that song, the first verse is the blues." He begins to sing. His voice is soft and husky, with the same country twang he has on the recorded version: "The sky was falling and streaked with blood/I heard you calling me." He explains, "That's country blues. I'm doubling my voice around a twelve-string guitar, so when you hear the beginning of that thing, you hear a spirit out of the past. Mandolins. Appalachian fiddles." He sings again: "Then you disappeared into the dust, up the stairs. . . .
"Then," Springsteen continues, "when the chorus hits, that's the gospel. The pump organ comes in. That's where the thing lifts and makes sense of the first verse and, hopefully, tries to make sense of the experience itself. And my best songs have done both of those things, blues and gospel. That's what my band, and my writing with the band, has always been about. On an album like Nebraska, you can hear the blues thing, but the band is more like Sunday church. We're gonna shout that thing to you, right into your face, and try to get you to stand up. And there were the essential elements of what I do with the band, in the first thirty seconds or so of recording this album. When the drums hit on 'Into the Fire,' it comes down, and the whole thing just grounds itself into the earth and starts fightin', you know? The gospel and the blues." Springsteen looses one of his hoarse, full-body laughs. "That's where the fight starts. And that's all we do, as a band. That's all that we're built for. That's the service we provide."
In 1982, in a house about ten minutes from his farm, Springsteen recorded his album Nebraska, an acoustic collection of murder ballads and conjured ghosts that, to this day, sounds haunted and somehow timeless — an album-length equivalent of Elvis' version of "Blue Moon" or Hank Williams' "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." Springsteen, of course, followed up Nebraska with Born in the U.S.A., which changed everything. As anthemic and arena-friendly as its predecessor had been spooky and insular, the album sold more than 10 million copies, spawning seven hit singles and placing Springsteen atop the pantheon of Eighties pop stars, representing for the blue-collar rock fan alongside the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna. "I was always unsatisfied with that album," Springsteen says today. "That was one I really struggled with and never felt like I got the whole thing right. But your own wrestling in that department doesn't really have anything to do with the way something is received, or the way your fans hear it."
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