Bruce Springsteen remembers Sept. 11

New album features ballads about loss with classic sound

Album Review

July 29, 2002|By Tom Moon | Tom Moon,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Hush, friend. The High Church of Rock and Roll, Asbury Park branch, has resumed services. Look inside your heart and answer truthfully: Don't we need that sound, those three-chord parables about faith, now more than ever?

With the release tomorrow of Springsteen's The Rising, it's time once again to drop the needle and pray.

Deeply affected by the events that shattered us all in September, the iconic soul reverend is talking a language we can understand: "This too shall pass." "An eye for an eye." "Don't worry, we're going to find a way." "Counting on a miracle."

Springsteen comes to us as self-appointed mourner-in-chief, struggling to bring the collective grief over the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks to human scale. His songs are full of people missing the kiss and touch of those who are gone.

Stand up, heed Springsteen's call for catharsis. Climb onto the E Street Empathy Express, and come up for the rising.

It's not as if you have much choice. The Rising, which arrives with a multimedia blitz of publicity, will be inescapable for months. Its 15 fervent songs, some pure Jersey Shore escapism and some overloaded with somber meaning, represent Springsteen's return to capital-R rock, and mark the first time since 1984 that he's recorded a full album with his loyal E Street comrades.

Springsteen, 52, has said that The Rising represents both a new creative phase and the return of his "rock voice," a sound or ideal he feared he'd lost after 1987's Tunnel of Love. Musically, the songs do have some unusual wrinkles: the Pakistani devotional vocals that embellish "Worlds Apart," elaborate strings that surge against and chop up the backbeats. But for the most part, the CD's basic building blocks aren't terribly different from those of 1980's The River.

Like a canny snake-oil salesman, Springsteen has repackaged the same chord sequences, the same singsong la-la refrains, the same steamrolling anthems that have served him for three decades. He's counting on the lyrics' revival-tent affirmations and humble entreaties to the heavens for camouflage.

The Bruce-obsessed, if no one else, will be happy that their idol has tinkered rather than overhauled. But it turns out that those old sturdy frames do serve the CD's themes of loss. They're comfortable, like the couch on the front porch at "Mary's Place," and a way for him to broach serious subjects without sounding like Tom Joad on the lecture circuit.

"Into the Fire," written shortly after Sept. 11, follows firefighters as they ascend the stairs of a burning building, more panic creeping into each successive verse. The result is deeply moving, and also troubling: Is this artistic ambulance-chasing or Woody Guthrie-style reportage, the age-old impulse to capture an unfathomable epochal event in words?

"You're Missing" strives to memorialize the terrorist attacks from a different angle: Now Springsteen is on the home front, watching as a new widow tends her baby and answers the phone, fielding an endless barrage of worried questions. And with its eerie, echoey voices, "The Fuse" suggests a barren landscape in the hours after catastrophe, when skin-to-skin intimacy becomes the only response that makes any sense.

Probably no other rock figure would attempt such an exhaustive, exhausting emotional investigation, but Springsteen rises to the challenge, replacing the broad-brush generalizations of "Hungry Heart" with descriptions of the small things -- the imprint of hair on a pillow, the brush of caring hands.

There are actually several records within The Rising, which runs 73 minutes and would have had more impact at nine songs instead of 15. Most prominent are the overt Sept. 11 aftermath songs, elegant, gospel-influenced portraits in grief that gather rage and consolation into the same tense phrases.

Then there are less topical songs of brotherhood and friendship. The yowling blues "Further on Up the Road," with its drifter restlessness and we'll-meet-again testimony, is the most riveting, while "Mary's Place" is the one that most closely resembles the E Street rumbles of old. Also on board are several upbeat vintage-rock evocations designed to lighten the weight of the world. Several of these are unimaginative throwaways.

To make these songs larger than life, Springsteen and the E Streeters dust off the glockenspiel that gave crisp definition to "Born to Run," and drag out every bit of heavy artillery from under the boardwalk -- most obviously a three-guitar attack that delivers more shredding power and latticelike intricacy than anything in the E Street catalog.

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