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2023/4 Albums Thing 340 - Bruce Springsteen “The Rising”

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The story goes that in the days after the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 Bruce Springsteen was standing by the river in New Jersey looking across the Hudson to the smoking city of New York. As a car drove past him someone shouted from the vehicle “Bruce, we need you now”. Bruce did the only thing he could, he reconvened the E Street Band and made an album.

I have to confess as we’d gone through the ’90’s I’d had a very loose connection with Springsteen and his music. “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town” had been something of a disappointment to me and in the 10 years twixt those two and this one he’d only released “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” when it came to new music. The fanfare around a new record with the E Street Band is what piqued my interest in this record. “The Rising” was the first album Springsteen had recorded with the E Street Band since “Born In The USA” in 1984, 18 years previously (all of the band played on 1987’s “Tunnel Of Love” but didn’t all play together on the same songs). They had played a reunion tour through 1999 and 2000 and Springsteen had already written some of the songs that appear on “The Rising”, "Further On (Up The Road)" was performed on the reunion tour, “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” and “Nothing Man” were written in the ‘90’s.

Many people look upon "The Rising" as Springsteen’s “9/11” record and in part that’s the case, it’s recording was certainly sparked by those events. But we already know that some of these songs were in play before that fateful day. One of those is very likely “Lonesome Day”, the all important Track 1 Side 1, but this time it’s not only kicking off the new album it’s re-introducing us to the E Street Band. On first hearing I was a little taken aback, to me the E Street Band has Professor Roy and the Big Man up front but here they’re not. The guitars are up front now and so is new E Streeter Sister Soozie Tyrell’s fiddle, with some extra added other strings. This is the wall of sound of “Born To Run” and the chest thumping of “Born In The USA” but updated for the 21st Century. Many people hear it as a 9/11 song on the back of the 2nd verses lyrics (“Hell’s brewing, dark sun’s on the rise, This storm will blow through by and by, House is on fire, viper’s in the grass, A little revenge and this too shall pass”) but that ignores what had been said in verse 1 (“Baby, once I thought I knew, Everything I needed to know about you, Your sweet whisper, your tender touch, But I didn't really know that much”) and Springsteen’s ability to write lyrics that aren’t always entirely literal (he might be singing about cars and girls but he’s not necessarily singing about cars and girls…ya dig ?). I hear it as much more of a broken relationship song that wouldn’t have been out of place on “Tunnel Of Love”, and has become a great live favourite.

If you’re looking for comment on that day in September 2001 then look no further than the last song written for the album “Empty Sky”. In a very concise lyric Springsteen lays out the pain of having lost someone that day (“I woke up this morning, I could barely breathe, Just an empty impression in the bed where you used to be, I want a kiss from your lips, I want an eye for an eye, I woke up this morning to an empty sky”). The line about “an eye for an eye” would elicit cheers from US audiences and at a 2003 concert in Atlantic City Springsteen was prompted to explain the lyric was meant to express the pain of the protagonists loss and was “never written as a call for blind revenge or blood lust”. The State of New Jersey named its 9/11 memorial Empty Sky.

The most overtly 9/11 focussed songs come in a triptych toward the end of the record. Part one is “You’re Missing”, the sentiment is obvious, right ? Your shirts and shoes are still there, the baby is still here, we still have coffee cups, the papers still get delivered, the TV is still on, we’re waiting for you to walk in but…You’re Missing…a simple statement of loss and not knowing. When he performed it at Old Trafford Cricket Ground in 2003 my wife Deb was only 5 weeks past suddenly losing her Dad and this song got to her, the tears came…the power of music huh ?

That’s followed by “The Rising” (the song) which has become a permanent fixture in Springsteen’s live set. He’s performed it every time we’ve seen him since this albums tour in 2003 when it was second on the setlist after “Born In The USA”, now that was an opening salvo ! It’s a huge singalong, cathartic crowd pleaser but allied to a deeply ambiguous lyric wrapped up in religious imagery. As it opens it is almost obviously about a firefighter entering one of the towers

Can't see nothing in front of me, Can't see nothing coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness, I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I've gone, How far I've gone, how high I've climbed
On my back's a sixty pound stone, On my shoulder half mile of line

Can’t see nothing, this darkness, how high I’ve climbed, on my shoulder a half mile of line, all things you’d imagine a firefighter  entering a burning building might experience. But what is this “chain that binds me” and what is it binding him to ? A little later in the song we hear

There's spirits above and behind me, Faces gone black, eyes burning bright
May their precious blood bind me, Lord as I stand before your fiery light

Is our firefighter rescuing survivors or does this lyric reveal him at the very moment he himself has succumbed to the flames and the buildings collapse and here he is caught between “worlds” by the “chain that binds me”, that being his wife, children, family, friends…a life he doesn’t want to let go ? In his sets these days Springsteen uses the song as the crescendo to an emotional build-up throughout the show, it gives the crowd the opportunity to sing along, express and expel some of the emotion that he’s been feeding them for the last couple of hours…you bust a lung singing along to the  “Li Li, Li Li Li Li, Li Li” refrain, after that we can party. The past 3 occasions we’ve seen him live “The Rising” has been followed by “Badlands”, then the two “Born…” songs and some mix of “Dancing In The Dark”, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”, “Bobby Jean”, “Glory Days” and other songs and covers that you can dance and sing and shout along to. Springsteen understands the emotional power of “The Rising” and that after that we all need some release/relief.

The third part of the trio is “Paradise”. A quiet, contemplative song, Bruce plays all the instruments, Patti can be heard briefly on backing vocals. There are are 3 scenes, one appearing to be in the Middle East, one in Virginia, the last by a river. In all the scenes Paradise is sought, whether that is Christian Heaven or Islamic Jannah or something else is never specified. Written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Springsteen himself isn’t sure what it’s about “I wasn’t sure what I was saying when I wrote this song…an intuitive thing that fell together in a certain way”. Like Steve Earle later (see “Rich Man’s War”) Springsteen stirred controversy with this song as the first verse was seen as being sympathetic toward terrorists. But like the couple in “Nebraska” going on a murderous rampage across Nebraska and Wyoming, Springsteen was trying to understand.

The album ends on the statement “My City Of Ruins” which might seem like a song obviously written about the attack on New York but it was in reality written and performed almost a year before 9/11. 

“The Rising” (the album) arrived at a time when Bruce Springsteen had been relatively quiet for 10 or so years. He was seen as of the past, maybe not as culturally or artistically relevant as in the past. This album and and its accompanying 120 show, 82 city, 14 month world tour returned him to the forefront of people’s minds and reminded them of what a powerful songwriter and performer he is. The albums over the ensuing 20 years have been patchy in places but the tours and gigs have been a joy to attend, many centred around this records title song.

The Rising - https://youtu.be/6i-fiRgbpr4?si=IGuCRF7PakNdXR_1


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