SPRINGSTEEN: WHEN YOU NEED HIM, HE WILL COME
by Randy Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
East Dummerston, Vt.
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- For any veteran artist, it can be almost unfair to compare their current work with their past creations.
Bruce Springsteen's music is no exception. Just as Bob Dylan can't outrun the burden of being the most profound songwriter of his generation, Springsteen can't outrun his own glory days.
But you can't expect a 52-year-old man, married with kids, to still be singing about cruising in hot rods and trying to get into Rosalita's pants. You can't expect a band to play as intensely in 2002 as it did in 1975. You expect different things from an artist as they grow older, but it's always hard to resist comparing the present to the past.
"The Rising" inevitably has to compete with the memory of Springsteen masterworks such as "Born to Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "The River." It also has to carry the extra burden of the hype of being the definitive musical work summing up the sad, horrible day that was Sept. 11, 2001.
But if Springsteen could survive the hype of being on the covers of Time and Newsweek and being hailed as the next Bob Dylan in one crazy week in 1975, I think he'll make it though this. The honesty and integrity that has served him well through his three-decade career makes "The Rising" incapable of being just an attempt to cash in on a nation's grief.
As for the other hook for this sprawling 73-minute CD - Springsteen's first studio recording with the E Street Band since "Born in the U.S.A." - these aren't the E Streeters of yore. There are very few moments on this album where the band rocks out; they almost seem like session players rather than the cohesive unit that made Springsteen's reputation.
So "The Rising" is not an exercise in nostalgia. What it is is the work of a mature group of musicians who know enough not to pretend they're still 20-somethings trying to save the world with rock 'n roll. This is a CD where all of the deeper virtues that make Springsteen so beloved by his fans are out there for all to see. The raw energy has been replaced by the accumulated lessons of middle age.
Hard-core Bruceheads might ask why a string section (the Nashville String Machine) gets more of a workout on some songs than the E Street Band? Sounds ridiculous, but the strings work nicely on the album's up-tempo opener "Lonesome Day," and in limited doses on "Countin' On A Miracle" and "You're Missing."
The first of the Sept. 11 songs, "Into The Fire," is a gorgeous acoustic-tinged elegy for the cops, firefighters and EMTs who were running into the World Trade Center and never made it out alive. The song offers a simple prayer that you're probably going to hear at a lot of upcoming funerals: "May your strength give us strength/May your faith give us faith/May your hope give us hope/May your love give us love."
If "Into The Fire" is about the Sept. 11 dead, "Nothing Man" is about the guilt of the living who "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 spare yet richly textured song captures the pain that the survivors of that day will carry forever.
Compared to those two songs, "Waiting On A Sunny Day" is a lightweight. It's a pleasant little song fueled by fiddle and hurdy gurdy that almost seems like it's on the CD to keep it from being a total bummer. Ditto for "Mary's Place," a song that tries to rev up like something circa "Born to Run" and falls short.
"Let's Be Friends (Skin To Skin)" might also fall into the same category, but to me it was the surprise track on this CD. It has a slinky Al Green-like sound with a tantalizing pair of sax breaks by Clarence Clemons (who has way too little to do on the rest of the tracks).
The musical shapeshifting continues in the Beatlesque songs "Countin' on a Miracle" and "Empty Sky." While "Countin'" is a more conventional love song, "Empty" sounds like something off "Abby Road" and continues the thread of love, loss and longing that runs through this whole CD.
The Middle Eastern-drenched "Worlds Apart" is more mystical than anything Springsteen has ever done, but it doesn't sound forced at all and shows that maybe there isn't that much distance between Asbury Park and Baghdad.
"Further On (Up The Road)" and "The Fuse" are dark, driving apocalyptic rockers. "Further" is about a place "where the road is dark, and the seed is sowed/Where the gun is cocked, and the bullet's cold/Where the miles are marked in blood and gold." There's no redemption here, just a need to keep moving. "Fuse" is just as bleak, except with the promise of sex to break up the gloom.
"You're Missing" and "Paradise" are the most heartbreaking songs on the CD. "Missing" plunks the listener down into a home that seems perfectly normal and ordered - "Your house is waiting for you to walk in ... but you're missing." The spareness of "Paradise" only makes the emptiness of death that pervades this song that much more painful.
For those who buy this CD looking for post-Sept. 11 catharsis, the title track and "My City Of Ruins" provide it.
"Rising" is the one song on the CD that truly and honestly rocks the way you expect Springsteen and the E Streeters to rock. But "Ruins" (a song that eerily sounds like Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" and was originally written about Springsteen's decaying New Jersey hometown; it was revived to great effect for the Sept. 11 benefit shows last fall) shows the depth of Springsteen's faith and his belief in redemption even after unimaginable pain.
Faith and redemption have long been themes in Springsteen's songs, but those things have been hard to find after Sept. 11. "Now there's tears on the pillow/Darlin' where we slept/And you took my heart when you left/Without your sweet kiss/My soul is lost, my friend/Tell me how do I begin again?" Springsteen asks in "Ruins."
But before something can rise from the ruins, Springsteen prays for strength, for faith, for love to carry him through. And if there's anything to take away from this personal voyage of love and loss, it's that we need a lot of help to get through these extremely troubled times.
Springsteen has always had knack for showing up with the music we need at the exact moment we need it. "The Rising" continues that string.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).