Quelling Springsteen’s The Rising — Rock

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising came out almost a year ago. So what? It was the first major work in almost six years from a man who is perhaps the greatest American recording artist of the last quarter century, a work that admittedly, if not explicitly, dealt with the greatest American tragedy since the Civil War, the events and aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. And because of these delicate factors, it did not receive the scrutiny — the critical attention — that a work of such ambition and daunting subject matter deserves. Like so many things in our culture it was accepted as salient and superlative, both by the public and the rock press, because it was heralded as such.

Springsteen, America’s most celebrated rock icon, does an album dealing with a crucial moment in American history. It was an idea as natural as peanut butter and jelly on white with the crusts cut off. Unfortunately, it ended up being just as bland.

The production is partly to blame. The album lacks the sort of character, the sort of ambience and atmosphere that distinguishes Springsteen’s best works: the Spectoresque, almost symphonic soundscape of Born to Run; the gritty, distorted, soot-stained wallop of Darkness on the Edge of Town; the desolate forsaken stretch of interstate that is Nebraska. Nothing comes bursting to the surface on The Rising. There are no peaks and valleys here, only a sonic landscape of flat green pastures, pleasing at first, but soon monotonous and irritating; too easily digestible, too controlled, and too clean. The album’s central themes are loss and the perseverance of hope in spite of loss, and its generic, commercial production trivializes the gravity and difficulty of these issues. Loss is messy and hope elusive in its aftermath, and the sugar-coated gloss of The Rising does these themes no justice.

And then there is the question of artistic intent. Art is about capturing or celebrating or lamenting moments that may otherwise go unchronicled. Addressing a moment of obvious historical or cultural significance, especially one so fresh and vivid in the collective consciousness, seems redundant. Such an endeavor is more the terrain of made-for-TV movies than “important” rock albums. In Springsteen’s defense, the album contains no overt lyrical references to the tragedy of that day. Still, the lyrics lack the craft and depth of previous works. Almost as banal are the actual metaphors, if they are as such. Empty skies, ruins, stairs leading skyward to flames; you don’t have to be Nancy Drew to figure out what the Boss is talking about. Combine the album’s imagery with the content of the interviews Springsteen gave surrounding the album’s release, discussing his conversations with family members of those lost on Sept. 11, and the inspiration he drew from those conversations. You must conclude that The Rising is most assuredly, despite possible protests from Springsteen and others, an album about Sept. 11. And this final assessment strips the album of its universality. It is no longer about anyone at any point in time; rather, it’s about certain people at a certain moment in history. It becomes an artifact, instead of art. This is not to assert that history has no place in art. Many great works of art take place against a backdrop of historical importance, but they deal less with the unfolding of history and more with the people shambling their way through it. Springsteen attempts to do this, but the shallowness of his lyrics, the sanitized gleam of the production and the pedestrian composition of the music, undercut his intent.

Since the release of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen has been a fisherman for those who fell into the fissures of American society, a spokesman for the working poor of this country, whose dreams and hopes and stories may otherwise have gone unheard. He has performed this task with great compassion and artistry. Yet the stories and emotions presented on The Rising are not ones that require the dramatization of art to attain their full power. They are the stories we saw each day on the news in the aftermath of Sept. 11, stories so raw and moving that the artifice of song seems flimsy in their place.

In his rush to provide the public with a remedy, Springsteen seems to have forgotten the things that made him great in the first place. At the core of The Rising’s problems is that its songs seem less heartfelt and believable than those of his previous works. Before, the characters in Springsteen’s songs seemed vessels through which he communicated his own feelings of heartache and hope. On The Rising, he has the detachment of a social worker, involved, wanting to understand, but ultimately unable to. Had he taken more time with this work, perhaps he would have been better able and prepared to understand his characters and their emotions. Or perhaps it’s a case of an artist past his prime taking on something too overwhelming for him, like Apollo Creed taking on the fearsome Drago in Rocky IV. Springsteen may have been wise to stand back and let the artists in their prime, the Rockys of popular music, tackle the despair and will to endure of the post-Sept. 11 world. He wouldn’t have sold all those records or won all those Grammys, but for an artist of his stature those things shouldn’t matter. Producing a great work of art, one that can stand alongside the considerable achievements of his career, should be the goal. And despite all the adulation, The Rising just doesn’t climb high enough.


Fred Mills comments: Wow. A drop-dead-gorgeous analysis of a record that, we should note, has already been overanalyzed. I personally love The Rising, yet this argument against the record’s cultural fluency is persuasive enough to convince me that perhaps I had some similar misgivings in the back of my head that, in my 30-year unblinkered devotion to Springsteen, I perhaps was unwilling to confront. A great record review shouldn’t be a consumer guide thing — it should take a particular stance and outline why the writer is taking that stance — along with, of course, the requisite description of the musical contents. Priest succeeds on both counts, and he goes the extra mile by placing the record into a larger context — an often risky move by a reviewer, but a move which, when it works, elevates the review to the status of art itself. And he doesn’t talk down to the reader, knowing full well that The Rising is already a well-worn subject; rather, he presumes a degree of knowledge on the reader’s part about Bruce and his album, then proceeds to question the underlying assumptions we might have about same. Just fucking stunning.

Back to Amateurs write, like, prose

Stephan Priest is 24, lives in Detroit and is a food runner for the Elwood Bar and Grill. E-mail [email protected]
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