Like most of America, Bruce Springsteen spent September 11 and many days after in a whirlwind of rage, sorrow and confusion. Though he never addresses the tragedy directly (no lines about the WTC or bin Laden), the day's events permeate almost every track on The Rising, a work more about loss, grief and moving on than politics or revenge.
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While it's not hard to interpret lyrics like "The sky was falling and streaked with blood" on "Into the Fire" or figure out what once occupied the vacant space on his compelling "Empty Sky," many songs could be applied to any loss of a loved one. On the most powerful track, "You're Missing," Springsteen simply catalogs left-behind possessions of one who is gone -- the shirt in the closet, the favorite coffee cup. "Your house is waiting for you to walk in," he sings, "but you're missing." And he almost makes you believe that buildings can have human emotions. Survivors of tragedy ("Nothing Man"), religious hatred ("Worlds Apart") and even suicide bombers ("Paradise") all appear here, many tracks sharing the same catalog of sensual words: tongue, kiss, lips, dust, seed and blood.
So heavy are the themes, one feels almost guilty enjoying the simple, buoyant melodies of the frothy, '60s pop-flavored "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" and "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)." "Mary's Place," a Born to Run-era muscular blowout, will undoubtedly be a live favorite. Not all of the material connects ("The Fuse" and "Countin' on a Miracle"), and read alone many lyrics seem simplistic and overdone. But this is a record better appreciated with multiple listens.
The Rising is Springsteen's first full-length studio album with the E Street Band since 1984's Born in the U.S.A. (though, oddly, the group doesn't receive co-credit). But while it's the same lineup, it's not the same band. As Springsteen's material has matured and evolved, his longtime musical compadres follow suit (or orders). Here, the core of E Street's music is best demonstrated not by Clarence Clemons's sax or the guitar attacks of Springsteen, Little Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren. Instead it's the lower-volume piano and keyboard swirls of Roy Bittan and Danny Federeci that really hold the music together.
The record's elegant closer, "My City of Ruins," was actually written before September 11 and is about Springsteen's beloved Asbury Park, New Jersey. But its repeated chorus of "Come on, rise up!" supplies the emotional foundation and release for the whole effort. Not a cry for revenge, but a call for determination and hope once the initial grieving is over. In The Rising, Springsteen has crafted a compelling response to a recent tragedy, with material that will continue to mean something to listeners long after the horrendous event that midwifed it.