More than any American pop star not named Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen inspires the kind of exhaustive analysis that critics reserve for major cultural icons. No matter what the national mood, his politically charged works document in unsettling detail the corruption of the American Dream — all within the context of anthems so American in flavor that Springsteen himself has been accused of jingoism. It is a testament to his songwriting talents, though, that Springsteen’s voice has rarely failed to find a massive audience: 1982’s Nebraska and 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., albums that questioned the feel-good patriotism and comfortable conservatism of the Reagan era, nevertheless scaled almost unprecedented heights of commercial and critical success. Even 1995’s Ghost of Tom Joad, a low-key effort that registered only a blip on the pop charts, pulled no punches in its assessment of a Clinton administration reluctant to challenge the economic disparities of the status quo.
So it should be no surprise that Springsteen is the first American artist to devote a full-length album to the horrors of Sept. 11, making America’s most jarring brush with terrorism the focal point of The Rising. In the hands of a lesser talent, this material might have been rife with trite clichés and too-obvious metaphors, but the Boss is up to the challenge. Without lending his voice to the cries for revenge heard so often after the terrorist attacks, Springsteen pays tribute to both the first victims and to the fortitude of the men and women who lost their lives trying to save them. His lyrics are haunting and direct (“I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher/Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire”), and each track is driven by a smoldering sense of urgency that’s been missing from Springsteen’s work since Born in the U.S.A. But The Rising’s greatest pleasure is not its lyrics, heartfelt and evocative though they may be; it is Springsteen’s stirring return to form as a singer/songwriter.
Springsteen has spent the last 15 years mixing worthwhile but unexceptional collections of new material (Tom Joad, 1992’s Lucky Town and Human Touch) with greatest-hits compilations and live albums. On The Rising, he matches his lyrical eloquence with some of his most engaging music since 1987’s superlative Tunnel of Love. Reunited with the E Street Band for the first time in 18 years, the Boss benefits from the fuller sound provided by saxophonist Clarence Clemons and the powerful three-headed guitar monster Springsteen forms with Nils Lofgren and Steven Van Zandt. “Mary’s Place” and “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” one of the few pre-Sept. 11 tracks featured on the album, are jubilant, foot-stompin’ rockers that would have felt right at home on Springsteen’s 1975 masterpiece, Born to Run. “Nothing Man,” a somber ballad sung from the perspective of a weary Sept. 11 survivor, recalls the understated elegance of 1994’s “Streets of Philadelphia.” But the real highlights here are “The Fuse” and “Paradise,” songs that best capture the quiet desperation that gripped a nation as its most celebrated skyscrapers tumbled to the ground. Both cuts find Springsteen combining lush melodies with impassioned vocals and lyrics that only hint at an almost unspeakable sadness that lies just beneath the surface. The results are his most moving pop creations since the days of “I’m on Fire.”
Perhaps that is what makes this, Springsteen’s 12th studio effort, such a remarkable accomplishment: It was surely a challenge to compose an album dealing with Sept. 11 that wouldn’t trivialize its subject or be trivialized by it. On The Rising, the Boss has come close to succeeding.
E-mail Rossiter Drake at email@example.com.