Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How Do I Begin Again? – An album review of The Rising

“How do I begin again?”
– My City of Ruins

The above question defines The Rising. And its query is two-fold. On the one hand, The Rising is explicitly a response to 9/11. On the other, it marks a new stage in Bruce Springsteen's career. What seemed like the beginning of his third act, has since become an extension of the second act in a career even more prolific than anyone would have imagined back when Born in the U.S.A. cemented him as a cultural icon.

Prior to the release of The Rising, Bruce had managed to shake off his 1990s "Who am I" malaise with the release of The Ghost of Tom Joad – an album which won him critical, but not commercial, acclaim. Having reaffirmed his artistic credibility, Bruce then won back the masses by resurrecting The E Street Band for a series of nostalgic concerts. But the true test would be producing an original album with The E Street Band, their first in 18 years. Everything was on the line with The Rising. Would Bruce reassert his relevance? Or would he fade away?

Fortunately, the album was a massive success, debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 chart, drawing rave reviews, and bringing home three Grammys.

I’ve mentioned before that The Rising is my favorite Springsteen album – and by extension, my favorite album of all time. It holds a special place in my heart, and trying to look back at the album without the patina of nostalgia is futile. As such, the following review leaves out much of the praise and ardent emotion I feel for the album. I attempted to look at it more analytically, and tried to wrestle with its themes and structure. I’m not sure how successful I was, but I tried to tackle each song both on its own and as a piece of a larger work. It was a stirring experience, and the album holds as my favorite.

Like any work of art, it’s not without its weaknesses. I find the track order a bit odd at times, and I think it could have benefitted from some restructuring. For example, “Waitin' on a Sunny Day” and “Countin' on a Miracle” feel like variations on a theme. Yet they are separated by a single track, “Nothing Man”. I think this pair of songs would have benefited from either having greater distance on the album, or appearing back-to-back as if to illustrate a progression from passive to active.

After you've been to a live show, it’s nearly impossible to distance the album version of “Waitin' on a Sunny Day” from the sing-along spectacle it has become in concert. Which is too bad because it’s still a good song in its own right!
While “Waitin' on a Sunny Day” has taken on a more lightweight feel over the years, “Mary's Place” has taken on increased poignancy for me. When the album came out I originally tended to dismiss “Mary’s Place” as rather simple. But in the twelve years in between, its complexities have revealed themselves to me as the quiet pain of someone in grief trying to emerge from depression and daring to live again. While many of the songs feel immediate and focused on the here and now of 2001, songs like “Mary’s Place” round out the album's meditation on 9/11 by considering its lasting effects further on in time. It’s the song that brings me closest to tears (“Tell me how do you live broken hearted?”). It can make for an emotional wallop, as it’s followed by the album's more traditional tearjerker, “You're Missing" ("I got too much room in my bed").

Meanwhile, “Worlds Apart” and “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)” come off as a pair of good intentioned, albeit simple, odes to racial equality and acceptance. The minimalist “Paradise” would seem unremarkable, unless consumed as the natural ending of the album’s larger narrative. Within this context, “My City of Ruins” appears as a bonus track – a fantastic, malleable song that has adopted multiple identities over the years, serving as a beacon of hope for Asbury Park, 9/11, and Hurricane Sandy, respectively.

In many ways, The Rising is one of Bruce's least angry albums, which catches you off guard given the subject matter. There may be some pent up rage in “The Fuse” and “Empty Sky”, but by and large this is an album of solemn reflection. Which is something I really admire: Bruce's discretion and tact. He invokes 9/11 through direct imagery in “Empty Sky” and “Into the Fire”, but there aren't any songs about planes or Al Qaeda.

All that and I haven’t even talked about the album’s title track, or my favorite song on the album, “Lonesome Day”. My experience with both songs was initially formed by their music videos that made the rounds frequently on TV. “The Rising” grabbed my attention with the electric MTV Video Music Awards live performance that served as its music video, but it was “Lonesome Day” with Bruce soul searching on the Jersey Shore that got me off the couch and into the record store. It’s hard for me to listen to either song without instantly descending into the hard rocking head nodding and emotional lip synching that I engaged in as a 17-year-old. What can I say, I love everything about both of these songs.

If it hadn't been for The Rising, there would be no LegendsofSpringsteen.com. If the album had fizzled, Bruce would not have enjoyed the renaissance he's currently experiencing and he would not have ushered in a new generation of Springsteen fans to the degree that he has. Even if The Rising isn’t your favorite album, it served as the gateway for a large number of the millennial generation into a profound relationship with The Boss.

Tell me, how do we get this thing started?

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