The first thing one notices about Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising is that Springsteen himself sounds as if he’s risen. His voice is in robust, throat-clearing form, stripped of the Jersey-dust-bowl affectations that have lately seeped into his delivery. Reunited with the E Street Band for their first full album together in nearly two decades, he drips inspiration. He starts songs with ”one-two-thray!” count-offs, unleashes a few sky-piercing guitar leads, and in general seems to have returned home for the first time in a while.
But these are, of course, changed times, and he knows it. There are ghosts drifting through ”The Rising” — some mournful and some merry, some from his past and some from ours. His spirits are his old bandmates, who signify a connection to a yesterday he avoided for most of the ’90s. The contemporary spirits are the subjects of most of the songs — deceased firefighters and cops, backpack-carrying suicide bombers, and the deadened souls of survivors and grieving family left in the wake of so many international crises since last September. On ”The Rising,” as on the planet, everything’s back to normal, and yet everything’s changed.
Most of Springsteen’s work over the last decade was soggy, the result of a very evident musical midlife crisis. In what could be called a positive development in light of so many negative ones, the post-Sept. 11 world has refocused his songwriting. For years, he told us very little about himself and often hid behind characters. He’s still adhering to that modus operandi on ”The Rising,” but these Joes are more flesh and blood, more vivid, than the Midwest drifters of ”The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Employing basic yet evocative imagery, Springsteen takes on the roles of a doomed rescue worker (”Into the Fire”), one who made it out alive (”Nothing Man,” who sees everyone’s life, except his own, return to its old ways), and a grief-stricken spouse explaining her husband’s absence to her children (”You’re Missing”). These types of blue-collar characters, like Springsteen himself, seemed to have no place in the go-go Clinton era. But in the war- and economy-ravaged Bush II years, Springsteen’s approach — his voice, his bond with the middle and working class — feels relevant again.
Combining these haunted story-songs with E Street jocularity could have been awkward, even disastrous, but Springsteen’s backup musicians aren’t the same as we remember them either. Starting with the gloom-bashing bluster of the opening ”Lonesome Day,” the lean, fairly mean E Street grit of old has been replaced with tracks layered with guitars and stringed instruments, most prominently violin. The dual keyboards are downplayed. Old fans may be disappointed, and at moments the arrangements, intentionally or not, recall the hoedown rock of John Mellencamp’s ”Lonesome Jubilee” period. But this music has a rich, brawny ebullience; compare the version here of ”My City of Ruins” with the skeletal one he played on the ”Heroes” charity telethon. The credit surely goes to a new, outside producer, Brendan O’Brien, best known for beefing up alt-rockers like Pearl Jam. Springsteen’s words may be weighted with the aftershocks of death, but the music, ironically, is animated; unlike ”Joad,” ”The Rising” is a pleasure to hear. Even songs hampered by lyrical clichés, like ”Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” (where he’s ”gonna chase the clouds away”), grab hold and don’t let go.
Then there’s the new word the album introduces into the Springsteen lexicon: ”experimentation.” ”Worlds Apart,” which could be interpreted as a song about the love between an American soldier and an Islamic woman, integrates a Pakistani choir, Springsteen’s voice floating with the chants. The electro-gospel of ”The Fuse,” which intertwines postattack imagery with comfort-seeking sexuality, features underlying electronic loops and pulses. Neither of these tracks is hugely innovative — it’s easy to peg ”Worlds Apart” as inspired to some degree by Sting’s use of world beat — but they mark a refreshing departure for the musically conservative Springsteen. They’re also far more interesting than ”Mary’s Place,” his most blatant attempt ever at resurrecting his old boardwalk rock.
Springsteen can’t resist laying it on thick. Words like ”faith” and ”strength” crop up several times, which only remind you how little he employed them before. He didn’t have to; his music and delivery conveyed the beliefs behind those words effortlessly. Yet as he’s done so many times before, he overcomes the turmoil with his songs. In the title cut, the narrator — an unspecified casualty of Sept. 11 — ascends to heaven, ”spirits above and behind me, faces gone black, eyes burnin’ bright.” The music, especially the exuberant chorus, climbs up with him. ”The Rising” is a ghost story, but it’s more, too — past and present, celebration and wake — and few others could have pulled it off.