Hey, He's Bruce
The reunion of Springsteen and the E Streeters reaffirms The Boss's basic mythic community; musically the album integrates the surprisingly varied styles the World's Greatest Garage Band has tackled over thirty-odd years. The album's title signals reassurance. The Boss has gathered us tonight in the Church of Rock and Roll, as he used to holler in those ferocious live gospel set pieces, to...gather us, to bear witness, to go on--to live. Because that, as clichéd as it is, is what we do, with a snatching of images, pangs of emotion and a gazing at the skies.
One musician I know called The Rising "comfort food--classy, well-done comfort food." He was right, but it didn't really matter. Over the years Springsteen has become part of the soundtrack for our lives, as The Animals were for his. The album's failures are part of its package, its blandness a necessary function of the affirmation, reconciliation, healing. Think of Springsteen as the plugged-in troubadour who shapes his artistry into what his audience wants and needs, not cynically but because he wants to bring them with him, and its structure becomes clearer.
Structure and intention, however, can't save all the songs. They move effortlessly, though not always successfully, from one tempo and soundscape to another as they talk of heroism and transcendence, devils in the mailbox and dreams of the garden of a thousand sighs. There are no Big Statements; there are sketchy stories. The standard imagery of romantic love and loss is tilted into the post-9/11 world. Sometimes, as in "You're Missing," this leaves us with a catalogue of unsatisfying clichés against generic synth backgrounds. On the r&b-flavored "Countin' on a Miracle," which explodes after a gentle acoustic-guitar intro, it plays off Springsteen's longstanding hope-against-hope trope: "It's a fairytale so tragic/There's no prince to break the spell/I don't believe in magic/But for you I will." The familiar language tries to embrace the unimaginable; mostly, inevitably, it fails.
But when it doesn't it cuts deep. Among the album's speakers are the dead, the determined and fragile living, the suicidal and transfigured, and the living dead: "Nothing Man" is a breathy ballad about a working-class hero who makes his hometown paper, gets glad-handed and bought rounds, and mutters, "You want courage/I'll show you courage you can understand/The pearl and silver/Restin' on my night table/It's just me Lord, pray I'm able." The linguistic conceit gets tangled, stretched. The earnest "Worlds Apart," where star-crossed lovers meet to an Arab-music inflection and a Pakistani chorus, is camp-hilarious. "Sounds like Sting on a bad day," quipped one pal who hates Sting. Every three or four tunes is a party piece like "Skin to Skin," a throwaway emotional release.
Still, even the failures reflect Springsteen's vision of an unpredictable, hostile world where individuals overcome, evade, understand in defeat, or are simply crushed by the loaded dice of the Powers That Be, whether They are the fates, the rich, the government or the lonely crowd. He sees community as a necessary refuge: "Mary's Place," bubbling r&b, is about a survivor throwing a post-9/11 party while "from that black hole on the horizon/I hear your voice calling me." These songs don't lay out a political agenda. Who needs more of that in a world where endless voices politically spin What Happened every day? Catch the Rashomon-style perspective shifts in "Lonesome Day": "House is on fire, viper's in the grass/A little revenge and this too shall pass.../It's alright...It's alright...It's alright.../Better ask questions before you shoot/Deceit and betrayal's bitter fruit/It's hard to swallow, come time to pay/That taste on your tongue don't easily slip away."
This is the ineluctable lure of Springsteen's storytelling at its best--its suggestions of life's complexity. His voice, soaked in blues and gospel, sounds incredible, and its sheer allure, its phrasing and catches, its demands and pleas, carry many of the weaker songs. The singing's rich cracks and crannies evoke empathy and redemption, separation and defeat, wrapped in religious imagery that suggests, among other things, that the ways we were on 9/11 are more complicated than anyone can capture yet--how long, after all, did it take for Vietnam to yield Going After Cacciato and Dog Soldiers and "Born in the U.S.A."?
Which brings us back to the Garden, where the band pranced through nearly three hours, delivering note-perfect renditions--the blues-rock throb of "Into the Fire," the chug-a-lug suspensions and industrial-metal thrust of "The Fuse," the stark-yet-full acoustic colors of "Empty Sky," the skirling keyboards and snarling guitars that alternate sections of "The Rising"--that often flared but never quite built into the emotional peak that is their hallmark. The crowd leapt from their seats and sang the show's carefully salted oldies like "Prove It All Night," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "The Promised Land." They danced to "Mary's Place" and cheered the second half of the line from "Empty Sky" that runs, "I want a kiss from your lips/I want an eye for an eye." For the rest they mostly milled and sat and drank. The encores were all classics, from "Thunder Road" to "Born in the U.S.A."
Careful, scared, wondering if the glory days are past, sifting for omens. That's how the concert felt. Maybe that's who we are now. What kind of oracle did we expect?