Bruce Springsteen: Rising to the occasion

Sun-Sentinel, 2002-11-22, by: Sean Piccoli
If the new, Sept. 11-themed Bruce Springsteen album, The Rising, were a movie -- and it has enough connected characters and subplots to qualify -- it would be one part guts-and-glory wartime epic and one part sobering study. Think The Longest Day (1962), a vast restaging of D-Day that also zoomed in close to show the set of soldiers' faces. Then add the more intimate portrait found in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), about a wounded veteran struggling with civilian life. Using the personal and the panoramic, the venerated New Jersey rocker relives a shared catastrophe that also hit close to home.

A movie analogy is appropriate because there are few, if any, precedents in popular music for what Springsteen has done with The Rising. The album singles out one event, the terrorist attacks on America, and uses many viewpoints to isolate and replay split seconds and to depict their aftermath. From song to song, and sometimes within a single track, The Rising stretches like a craning camera shot from one person to another, and finally sweeps across the damaged skyline.

Conceptual albums such as Quadrophenia (1973) by The Who or Pink Floyd's The Wall (1979) also made use of history. But not like this. Those records drifted a song at a time through years or decades and made their points about modern life metaphorically. Springsteen, appearing Saturday with his much-loved E Street Band at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, operates more in the moment. Immediacy is part of what distinguishes The Rising from anything before it. Springsteen, 53, has made an album-length docudrama about
this century's longest day.

It is not the most heralded work in a career full of milestones, but The Rising has earned Springsteen his best reviews, across the board, since Tunnel of Love (1987) and since the last album to feature the E Street Band, Born in the U.S.A. (1984). It appears to have swept away doubts stirred by his less well-received work in the '90s: the tandem of Human Touch and Lucky Town (1992) and the solo acoustic album, The Ghost of Tom Joad (1996).

And it does what every good Springsteen record before it has: The Rising finds truth by telling stories in the primal voice of rock 'n' roll. The title track is one of several that stand out both for their rawness and poetic grace. It follows a firefighter up the stairs of a burning World Trade Center tower -- "On my back's a sixty-pound stone/On my shoulder a half mile of line" -- and transforms his dying into a sacrificial, liberating act. Springsteen's voice carries the weight of the firefighter's burden and then releases skyward in a chorus of "li li li's." His characters, like the Londoners in Quadrophenia, are archetypal -- the doomed firefighter, the widow of Empty Sky, the suicide bomber of Paradise. But they are more flesh-and-blood than the symbolic, proxy figures in many a Townshend song.

Not everything here automatically conjures up last year's events. Premonition hangs over the pulsing guitar and the narrative trail of The Fuse, which commingles love and dread, but the source of the disquiet is not clear: "Something's coming/You can feel the wires in the tree tops hummin'." The song moves at a slow, revealing crawl toward an ambiguous close, and ends poised between an erotic promise and some nameless, impending trouble.

One of the most talked-about songs on The Rising is one of the least obviously topical: Mary's Place, a curative dose of joy from a band that sounds as big as a block party. "Tell me how do you live broken-hearted?" Springsteen sings. "Meet me at Mary's place." The saxophone solo by Clarence Clemons, a classic Springsteen gesture, says, more than any moment on The Rising, that Bruce and the E Street Band are thrilled to be back.

The Rising has its miscues. After the buoyant opener, Lonesome Day, and a harrowing second song, Into the Fire, the album backslides into stock Bruce-isms and cliche with Waitin' on a Sunny Day and the lyrically arresting but musically pallid Nothing Man. But Springsteen comes to his own rescue with the shouted-out summons of Countin' on a Miracle, and the album maintains its stride through that and most of the 10 remaining songs, all the way to the pensive closer, My City of Ruins.

The odd thing about The Rising is how quickly the attention and acclaim accompanying its release subsided. The record has sold a handsome 1.5 million copies in 14 weeks, according to the research firm Nielsen SoundScan. But country star Toby Keith's Unleashed, a post-Sept. 11 flag-waver that's about as contemplative as a tractor pull, has done about as well in the same amount of time. Meanwhile, the soundtrack for rapper Eminem's debut movie, 8 Mile, will easily outsell both, and in less than half the time.

This is hardly the national outpouring of need that some observers had anticipated for Springsteen, who swept the country up in Boss-mania 18 years ago with Born in the U.S.A., an album also spurred by a sense of crisis, though not a single, devastating stroke. But then, Springsteen is a hero primarily to an older generation, one not as quick as it used to be to raid record-store shelves en masse. People in their teens and 20s today have their own guides through the minefield -- Eminem, Outkast, Korn -- and their own escape hatches -- Christina Aguilera, Nelly. Springsteen also asks something of listeners -- that they come to terms with an unthinkable calamity. It may be that most people don't want, or need, the reminder in their music.

Where Springsteen remains robust as ever is on the road. The Rising tour, coming on the heels of a 2000 reunion trek with the E Street Band, already is one of the best-attended of 2002. Springsteen is attracting an average of 16,500 people a show, according to the concert trade magazine Pollstar, slightly more than even Paul McCartney, who had gone decades since his last tour. True, the ex-Beatle charged nearly twice the average ticket price, $134.50 to $74.12. But Springsteen, who prefers to keep ticket price comparatively low, is not likely to use price hikes to test the limits of his appeal. For those with floor tickets to the Miami show, it will be standing-room only. Springsteen wants the concertgoers closest to him on their feet, and the arena floor for this and several other dates is cleared of chairs and converted into an open, festival-style space.

What everyone will see is a set anchored by The Rising and strung with pearls from the two albums Springsteen put out before Born to Run made him a star. The bustle of New York City is pronounced in three of these recurring numbers: Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street, from the band's 1973 debut, Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey; and Kitty's Back and Incident on 57th Street, from the sophomore 1973 album, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.

Other surprises abound. He covered the Boston anthem Dirty Water in Boston, and Goin' to Kansas City in Kansas City. He did not honor a call to boycott Cincinnati, where residents protesting police brutality are urging entertainers to stay away, but he opened the Nov. 12 concert with American Skin (41 Shots), a lament for an unarmed African immigrant who was shot dead in 1999 by four New York City police officers.

If one thing sets him apart from most rock royalty, it is that Springsteen remains in the fray. Other graying idols are content to be paid for playing their hits. Springsteen still wants to agitate for change, and he still wants to do it with his songs.