Thursday, September 8, 2011

Further On Up The Road: A Reconsideration of Springsteen's The Rising

Bruce Springsteen--"Further On (Up The Road)" (mp3)

This Sunday, it will have been 10 years since the towers came down, the Pentagon collapsed, Flight 93 became the ultimate battle of good and evil.

But there is one aspect of this powerful, emotional anniversary that few realize: ten years down the road, no one has tried to heal this nation, except Bruce Springsteen.

Our president sent us shopping and off to war. The "Never Forget" stickers peeled off our cars. Other musicians, though still relatively few, gave us the rage, the revenge, even the understanding (as in Steve Earle's brilliant "John Walker Lindh"), but nothing that we could use to heal. Bruce Springsteen gave us a soundtrack as a balm for our pain.

You may have been surprised, as I have been, by the dearth of 9/11-related songs. But then, there is no great song about Pearl Harbor, is there? I think I expected the range and dexterity of the Vietnam War songs, but those developed over years about a situation that lasted years. We may have wanted a song like Neil Young's "Ohio" about 9/11, but it never materialized and what would we protest against anyway? Instead, we got The Rising and we continue to have The Rising and little else. Luckily, it's been enough, all these years.

Always a champion of newer music, I nevertheless will argue that The Rising contains many of the best moments in popular music over the last ten years--"Lonesome Day" is the strongest opening song on a CD that I can name (and the song that holds up to repeated listenings more than any other), "You're Missing" stands as the most powerful testament to the losses on 9/11, the singular most defining event for an American these past ten years, and the "Na-na-nanana-nas" of "The Rising" are the most redemptive, cathartic moments of 21st century popular music. Bar none.

That being said, we would be remiss not to remind ourselves that Springsteen is a commercial artist; The Rising is a commercial endeavor. When we start there, we can concede that the CD's famous first and last tracks, "Lonesome Day" and "My City Of Ruins," have absolutely nothing to do with 9/11 or New York City. "Lonesome Day" is a song about a relationship, a failed relationship, and all of the emotions that go with being the one who didn't choose to end it. Wikipedia, pompous rock critics like Dave Marsh, and others have simply got it wrong because they are so desperate for unity, so desperate to take words like "vengeance" and "Hell" and tie them in to that day. What they miss is that, tonally, a song like "Lonesome Day" or another song that has nothing to do with 9/11, "Waitin' On A Sunny Day," simply fit because they evoke similar feelings--loss, anger, hope, need for vengeance--to those that 9/11 inspired. "My City Of Ruins," as is well known, was written before 9/11, about Springsteen's New Jersey hometown, not New York City. But it fits. And like any true artist, Springsteen is not going to waste a song that fits, regardless of its origins.

Ten years later, the CD's best 9/11 songs still paint a complex portrait of people not sure to how feel about what has happened to them or to their country as a result of those specific events. "Into The Fire," "Empty Sky," "You're Missing" and "The Rising" illuminate the specific circumstances of those involved and of those left behind. The immediacy of these songs has lost nothing to either the years that have passed or to multiple listenings. Others, like "Further On Up The Road" and "Countin' On A Miracle" are raw musical statements, with searing, unguarded vocals and melodies that capture a kind of desperation and hopelessness, sometimes tinged with bravado, sometimes intensely intimate, that the other songs don't have, but that the CD needs.

Taken as a whole, The Rising's songs evoke the most personal of losses. If the CD has a dominant motif, it is the loss of a kiss, the emptiness of a bed meant for two with only one person in it. Springsteen territory.

Not that there aren't some duds. "Nothing Man" nobly tries to capture what is was like to be a hero on that day, or, more specifically a survivor, but it doesn't delve into the soul like the aforementioned songs or offer the brutal details of "You're Missing." Still, it reminds what it must be like for survivors who are still here because of a whim, a casual decision, a stroke of luck, a simple twist of fate. Other songs, like "Worlds Apart" or "Skin To Skin" or even the haunting "Paradise" simply fail because they reach beyond the CD's mixture of love and loss toward reconciliation with an enemy that we still don't understand. "Paradise," while evocative, is simply misplaced on the CD, the second to last song a sensitive portrayal of a terrorist? No. Plus, "Worlds Apart" and "Skin To Skin" are the weakest songs, musically, on the CD.

In terms of instrumentation, The Rising belongs to Nils Lofgren. While the parts he plays, often on lap steel, are not challenging, they are the standout musical moments on a CD that more often wants to build a wall of instruments and voices. It is Lofgren's notes that usually make the songs soar.

The other thing that's happened in the interim, of course, is that the E-Street Band has taken these songs out on the road, in my opinion, with mixed success. While "Lonesome Day" or "The Rising" can stand with Springsteen's best concert numbers, a song like "You're Missing" loses meaning out of context and a song like "Waitin' On A Sunny Day" is revealed as the lightweight song that it is when removed from the original song cycle. The much-maligned (by my friends) "Mary's Place" is maligned because of the way it is used in concert, as a late-in-the-show replacement for audience party songs like "Rosalita" or "Kitty's Back." In context, it's a nice contrast to some of the rougher numbers.

Ultimately, The Rising is clumsy, in the way that all rock and roll is clumsy. But that is its charm--boys, now men, trying to explore their emotions and match those to music has always been the best that rock had to offer. No man would say in person what he will say in song. That a rock band, in almost its 30th year together, would be expected to, would dare to, take on a national tragedy was never in the cards when rock was young. That Springsteen is able to do that in a sprawling, loose commercial venture that addresses the wounds of an entire nation with a certain amount of timeliness and complete non-partisanship (while revitalizing his own career) is even more amazing. In effect, what was once a rockin' party band throws 15 musical darts at "the big topic", and a good 2/3 of those hit their mark, or come close.

But then music in general, rock and roll in particular, has always been about salvation for Bruce Springsteen. Those who love him understand that; those who don't or who are indifferent apparently don't need to share in that salvation. And that's fine. Perhaps, for 9/11 and its aftermath, Springsteen found himself as the perfect artist, nay, by 2002, the only artist, whose natural musical tendencies fit so perfectly with addressing our unhealed wounds.

If art is supposed to be a reflection of society, then there is precious little art that matters where the life-changing events of September 11, 2001 are concerned. The only one who figured out that people like me were hurting, sitting in our dark kitchens each 9/11, drinking beer and contemplating God-knows-what along with our unexplainable sense of loss, was that larger-than-life character "Bruuuuuuuuuuuuce!" Despite all my years of listening to him, that still somehow amazes me.

So, yes, Mr. Springsteen, I will indeed meet you further on up the road. I know you'll have a song to sing to keep us out of the cold.


Billy said...

Your take on this is nigh-impeccable. I'm not a black belt of Bruce-ness like you or troutking, but this album is an amazing creation.

Personally, I can't listen to "Into the Fire" without being alone, and I can't listen to it without having a brief but intense breakdown. I stand as one of those who, in times of greatest tragedy, has to seek and believe in the bigger and better things, and that song is an amazing testament to the fuel that keeps the human machine churning.

John said...

I've been listening to The Rising for the past two weeks in my car and your thoughts are spot on. There have been some other singers I like who've tried their hand at 9/11 songs--Richard Shindell on that live concert I burned for you, Bob, and a lovely Mary Chapin Carpenter song, but no artist has attempted an extended tribute to rival Bruce. Really cathartic work he did with that album.

cinderkeys said...

You may have been surprised, as I have been, by the dearth of 9/11-related songs.

My sister's wedding was September 15, 2001. With my plane tickets rendered obsolete, I drove from Tucson to St. Louis in two days. On the way, I occupied my mind by writing an upbeat, rockin'-out driving song.

At some point it occurred to me that I'd made an odd choice. You'd think I would be putting my songwriting skills to work on the tragedy.

But I knew better. 9/11 was too big for one of my songs. Whatever I attempted would be maudlin and pretentious and unlistenable.

Maybe I could have done it if I'd lived in New York or DC at the time. I could have focused on small details to paint a personal picture of that day. Writing about it from a distance, as some kind of abstract concept? No. Just, no.

I'm not much of a Springsteen fan, but I may have to check this album out just to see how he handled the lyrics.

troutking said...

This is fantastic criticism/analysis. I agree with everything here---including the intimation that Bruce is unique and awesome---except I think I'd give Lonesome Day a bit more credit. I think it's an excample of the kind of writing he'd do on Magic where the songs work on both a personal and national/political level. Although the first stanza of Lonesome Day seems more about a relationship, the last two seem to me to clearly be about 9/11 and the feelings many felt afterward.

Hell's brewin' dark sun's on the rise
This storm'll blow through by and by
House is on fire, Viper's in the grass
A little revenge and this too shall pass
Better ask questions before you shoot
Deceit and betrayals bitter fruit

That all seems too related to the calls to arms after 9/11 to be anything else, at least in my mind.

In any case, great post. I look forward to your reconsideration of Working On a Dream.