CK Retro Review: The Rising by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: May 8, 2014
Maybe Bruce Springsteen was trying to do too much with 2002’s The Rising. Not only was he reuniting the E Street Band while indoctrinating a new producer (Brendan O’Brien), but he was also, in several songs, attempting to make sense of the myriad tragedies of 9/11. Plus, he overstuffed the album with 15 songs when a lean, mean ten would have sufficed. While there are a few undeniable triumphs, The Rising feels now like it was a tad overrated at the time by folks both happy to have the band back together and grateful that Bruce took on such difficult subject matter with courage and abandon. Here is a song-by-song review.
15. “Mary’s Place”- I get was Springsteen was trying to do here, but the whole thing seems misguided. The music is the wrong tone for the lyrics, or maybe vice-versa, and anyway, neither the lyrics or the music are that memorable on their own. Bruce also seems strangely restrained on the vocals, as if he’s tiptoeing through a sensitive area. Maybe it works live (I’m dubious of that as well), but it’s a long, bumpy ride in the studio version.
14. “Countin’ On A Miracle”- This one is too busy by half. The shy acoustic opening and “Eleanor Rigby” bridge seem to be wedged from two completely different songs into this thudding rocker. The fairy-tale metaphor has been done before, although Bruce nearly gets this thing aloft toward the end with a rousing section featuring simple, repetitive, potent phrases, a technique used throughout the album.
13. “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day”- Don’t try to make a 9/11 connection here; the song isn’t weighty enough to sustain it. Better to just enjoy this one as a fun-loving, 60’s flavored lark and focus on Clarence Clemons soaring solo than try to hang any heavy connotations on it.
12. “The Fuse”- The title is appropriate, because Springsteen appears to be trying to fuse together about six different topics in his imagistic lyrics. Coherence may suffer but it’s still an interesting effort, especially when you combine it with the hip-hop stutter beat and the funky sonics. For a guy who can easily rest on his significant laurels anytime, such experiments are always noteworthy.
11. “Worlds Apart”- I actually would have preferred the Middle Eastern accents to stay at the forefront for the duration of the song; the heavy guitars bludgeon the nuance out of the melody. Springsteen’s lyrics labor a bit at the start but pick up momentum, eventually making salient points about the pointlessness of a cultural divide.
10. “Further On (Up The Road)”- It’s always hard to assign blame to a producer, especially when you’ve got an artist as clear about what he wants as Springsteen. I feel like O’Brien really improved with each outing, which is another way of saying that The Rising was his weakest production with Bruce. Things get a tad claustrophobic on the up-tempo numbers, and this bluesy offering is hampered by this malady. It still prevails though on the sheer focus and force of Bruce’s performance.
9. “Let’s Be Friends (Skin To Skin)”- A lot of The Rising seems tight, even on songs when there’s supposed to be a lighter touch. This track revels in a winning loosesness, the one groove on the album that doesn’t feel like its being played through gritted teeth. Sounds like it could have been on The River.
8. “Empty Sky”- The line “I want an eye for an eye” was an honest expression of the urge for revenge that hung heavy in the air after 9/11. Springsteen’s mournful harmonica fill says as much if not more than the lyrics do about the bottomless sorrow of those who lost loved ones on that fateful day.
7. “Lonesome Day”- The strings are utilized for power here rather than tenderness, which gives this song, and the album, a nice kick-start. As for the lyrics, they sort of veer in unwieldy directions from the initial theme of a guy betrayed by his lover; maybe this is one where the degree of difficulty didn’t need to be so high. It’s still stirring though as long as you don’t try to tie all the loose ends together.
6. “The Rising”- It’s a beloved song, I know, but I don’t feel that it ever quite delivers the payoff, always promising some kind of catharsis that never quite comes. The music is the big problem here, a bit cumbersome and labored, failing to do justice to Springsteen’s solid melody. It comes closest to getting there in the “Sky of…” section, which lets the music fall away and Bruce muscle the emotions home. Still, the fact that Springsteen can inhabit the role of a firefighter meeting his fate and make it seem somehow uplifting without skimping on the devastation of the loss is an outstanding achievement.
5. “Nothing Man”- Throughout this album, the gentler offerings registers as the most potent. Springsteen’s tale is just vague enough to suggest all kinds of outcomes for the protagonist but detailed enough to ground him and make him relatable. Whatever has befallen this fellow, it’s clear that he can’t carry on with the same routine that everyone else seems to enjoy, clinging to the gun on his nightstand rather to any sort of human companionship and comfort. It’s one of the odd things about The Rising that the songs written before 9/11 tend to capture the emotions and lingering effects of that day better than the ones written specifically in response to that event; “Nothing Man is a prime example of this phenomenon.
4. “Paradise”- The quiet guitar and gentle atmospherics make for one of the better productions on the album, just right for a song that suggests the themes of distance and loss. Without getting too specific, Springsteen embodies several different characters in the tragic play that unfolded before our eyes both leading up to and in the wake of 9/11, even daring to humanize a suicide bomber. The details sort of fade as the song progresses, causing the whole thing to sort of drift away into the ether, which somehow feels right.
3. “Into The Fire”- This is the song that works the best out of those written directly in response to 9/11. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch, but there’s something about the simplicity and directness of that refrain, a plea and a prayer wrapped up in one, that is inherently moving. It’s as if the enormity and complexity of that time destroyed any chance for an intricate dissection. Better to keep it unbothered by all the finer points of the topic and go straight for the heart, especially when you’ve got buoyant music behind you like this one does.
2. “You’re Missing”- Whether it was O’Brien’s influence or something else, there’s no denying that The Rising features some serious departures for Springsteen. This string-laden ballad is one of them, and he gets it just right. The premise of the song: How do you appropriate some sort of normality when the person who meant the most to you is gone? And should you even try? That cello seems to be prying into that household, trying to find those answers. Only Danny Federici’s perfectly-pitched organ break at the end offers any kind of release, a kind of laugh-so-you-don’t-cry finish to one of the prettiest songs Springsteen has ever released.
1. “My City Of Ruins”- Originally written about Asbury Park, Springsteen found a home for it as the album closer, where it contrasted its stories about defeat and general degradation with a poignant message about resiliency. In much the same way, the music is balanced between the dejected, descending bass line in the verses and the ever-elevating “Rise up” chorus. Springsteen’s lyrics are wonderfully descriptive (“Young men on the corner like scattered leaves” is just a killer line). The gospel uplift here is reached effortlessly, and when that refrain keeps building in the final moments, with Max Weinberg trying to bust up the dense fog of lingering sadness and Springsteen and his backing singers pushing on the clouds from below, you’ll likely feel the light beaming down on your face even if you’re listening with a roof over your head.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, and you can pre-order it now.)