Bruce Springsteen ended most shows on his 1999-2000 E Street Band reunion tour with the generous, rambling rocker "Land of Hope and Dreams." Along with the late-emerging, penetrating questions at the heart of "American Skin (41 Shots)," it was convincing evidence that Springsteen had rediscovered his muse. Not that his lyrical eye had suddenly sharpened after years of disuse; the time following his last indisputably great record, 1987's Tunnel of Love, saw him struggling for new things to say as a writer, with results both sublime ("Living Proof" and "If I Should Fall Behind" from 1992's unfairly maligned Lucky Town) and flat-out dull (many of the outtakes released on disc four of 1998's Tracks compilation). And while the dark years away from E Street actually produced a surprising number of classics (check out the bootleg-only take of "Back in Your Arms" if you can get your hands on it for a truly transcendent vocal performance), Springsteen began relying less and less on sound to carry his ideas, having, to paraphrase the man himself, lost his rock voice. He was becoming a folk-singing documentarian. And as much as I admire The Ghost of Tom Joad, the bleak Nebraska sequel lacking any of the propulsive rhythms that carried the dark thoughts of "Johnny 99" or "Atlantic City," I've never played it much.
I first heard "Land of Hope and Dreams" on a poor-sounding bootleg and, despite the embryonic version, was moved to damp eyes. It was still there after all those years: Little Steven's cracked voice melding with Bruce's, Max Weinberg's drumming rushing along like the Mississippi River, that spirit of inclusion and hope that sits at the core of everything Springsteen is about. Its gospel sound was such a natural link with his lyrical ideas and the tired preacher schtick he'd adopted, it was shocking it hadn't been made explicit years earlier. You could almost feel Springsteen looking for a way out of his insularity, trying to again capture something large, something fundamental to his view of his country.
Then came Sept. 11th.
The Rising is about intimate personal loss and the small, devastating details that remind the living of the dead. It's about those who are left behind and how they begin again. "Nothing Man," an elegiac, acoustically treated number about a shell-shocked soldier, dates back to 1994, but as with the prescient "My City of Ruins," written for Asbury Park and originally performed nine months before the attacks, feels part of the aftermath. Springsteen's characters are as desperate for connection as they were on The River and Nebraska, but these aren't stories of murderers adrift in Reagan's America and wild boys growing into relationships with Latin girls. These are stories of deeply connected, middle-class families ripped apart.
A startlingly effective juxtaposition of apocalyptic imagery and personal desire for physical contact runs through the album. Even when the songs feel rushed ("Countin' on a Miracle" suffocates under the weight of its latter-day Phil Spector arrangement and weak lyric, and buries a Little Steven backup vocal) or incomplete ("Further On (Up the Road)" has an underwritten chorus that sabotages some tough, terse verses and a filthy roadhouse-rock sound), the accumulation of details lends the album a rich resonance of feeling. Nearly every song has references to kissing or hands or touch, the simple day-to-day connections that build into something irreplaceable over time. Like all his best work, the whole of The Rising is better than the sum of its individual songs.
"Lonesome Day" is a great opener, with a huge cello and violin hook and Springsteen foreshadowing, "House is on fire/ Viper's in the grass" as a lead-in to the funereal "Into the Fire." His phrasing is delicate here, describing a final ascent "Up the stairs/ Into the fire/ Up the stairs/ Into the fire" so dutifully that there's enough distance between, and empathy for, the narrator's loss ("I heard you calling me/ Then you disappeared into the dust") and the hymn-like chorus ("May your strength give us strength/ May your faith give us faith/ May your hope give us hope/ May your love bring us love"). It suggests not anthemic exploitation but a series of thoughts pulled from someone's head.
The 10-piece E Street Band, now augmented by violinist/vocalist Soozie Tyrell (everybody but Weinberg sings; many songs have five- and six-part harmonies), is still a powerful fighting unit. For the most part, Springsteen and celebrated new producer Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Matthew Sweet) utilize the band well even as fans struggle with the deviation from the classic E Street sound. Until this record, you could count on Roy Bittan's piano and Danny Federici's organ overpowering the guitars in the mix, and there was always a huge sax break from Clarence Clemons waiting 'round the bend. Here, these three players rarely stand out. "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," a perfectly arranged summer hip-shaker, is driven by violin and Max Weinberg's thunderous drumming. The title track rides on the triple guitar crunch of Springsteen, Nils Lofgren and Little Steven. And "Paradise," which opens with a suicide bomber wandering a market ("I drift from face to face/ I hold my breath and close my eyes/ And I wait for Paradise") and finishes with desolation ("I search for the peace in your eyes/ But they're as empty as Paradise") is mostly Springsteen solo until the mournful coda.
Initially, I struggled with the modern sheen on the album. The brilliant "My City of Ruins" sounds sterilized, lacking the horns and rawness of its original live performance. And the chorus of "Empty Sky," which merely repeats the title several times, still doesn't work for me. But as my attention increased, the album began to transmit a particular unity of feeling, and the vibrant sounds and hooks on each track kept it from becoming a chore to play. The repeated images began to work for it instead of against. In other words, it started to work its way into my blood. To criticize it for minor imperfections, in the presence of such genuine feeling and ambition, would seem unworthy of the time required to do so, especially when the time could be better spent learning its language and connecting with it.