Springsteen's 'The Rising' at 20: Here's why it remains a staggering achievement
I've written several times about Bruce Springsteen's moving and audacious performance of "My City of Ruins" to open “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” a mere few days after 9/11. For those who lived through that event, it was startling to see someone address our raw emotional state head on in a way we didn't know we needed yet, or thought was possible.
Here's what I wrote looking back and recalling that moment 10 years later:
A few minutes in, a plea to “rise up,” not in anger but in brotherhood. A minute or so later, he tells us how: “With these hands,” with prayer, with faith, with love, with strength. Then he imparts again: Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!
I don’t know about you, but for the first time since that horrible day, when I held my month-old son in my arms and wondered what kind of world we’d brought him into, I started feeling that maybe, yes, we could move on — that we could rise up. That we could come out the other end of this somehow better and stronger.
What we didn't know at the time of that performance was that Bruce was far from done when it came to addressing the mental and emotional wounds left over from that awful day. Less than two years later, we saw The Rising, an album-length meditation on what that event meant to us as a country and as human beings. Now, 20 years later, it remains the definitive artistic response to the Sept. 11 attacks — and one of Bruce Springsteen's greatest achievements.
To mark the occasion, below is the essay I wrote for my 2012 book Glory Days: Springsteen's Greatest Albums arguing that "The Rising" deserves a place in any conversation about Bruce's best work. (And for what it worth, it's also a fine reminder — amid all the recent tsuris about ticket prices — about what he's capable of when it comes to moving us as an audience.)
Released: July 30, 2002
Highest Chart Position: US 1 / UK 1
1. Lonesome Day
2. Into the Fire
3. Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
4. Nothing Man
5. Countin’ on a Miracle
6. Empty Sky
7. Worlds Apart
8. Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)
9. Further On (Up the Road)
10. The Fuse
11. Mary’s Place
12. You’re Missing
13. The Rising
15. My City of Ruins
As Peter Ames Carlin relates it in the biography Bruce, Bruce Springsteen was pulling out of a parking space at the beach in Sea Bright, N.J., having just spent time there surveying the distant, empty skyline where the Twin Towers had stood just a few weeks earlier. That’s when a man drove by and delivered him an ultimatum through a rolled-down window: “We need you, man!”
Given that he’d spent almost 30 years at that point using his music to illuminate the way human beings live, love, shoulder hardships and find hope in the face of desperation, it’s not surprising that Springsteen’s fans felt he could help them parse the terrible fallout from Sept. 11, 2001. But as it turns out, it was something Springsteen needed as well – and his efforts to make what sense he could out of those events resulted in what was easily his most significant work in well over a decade.
The ’90s had seen flashes of brilliance from Springsteen, including “Streets of Philadelphia,” the new tracks from Greatest Hits and certain highlights from Lucky Town and The Ghost of Tom Joad. (Even Human Touch, which Entertainment Weekly referred to as the nadir of Springsteen’s “lost in the Phil Collins wilderness” period, had its moments.) But The Rising, released July 30, 2002, was a revelation: It contained some of his starkest, most trenchant and most moving compositions, and launched a new phase in Springsteen’s career —one in which his songwriting evolved in its ability to capture vital, current themes in terms at the same time both personal and universal.
The album was well received, particularly after Springsteen’s middling ’90s output: Rolling Stone called it “a singular triumph” in its five-star review, and it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, going on to sell more than 2 million copies. But more than its commercial or critical success, it’s the album’s cultural impact that ranks it among Springsteen’s most significant work.
The first thing you can’t help but notice about The Rising is that it just sounds different. Billed as Springsteen’s first album with the E Street Band since Born in the USA, it’s decidedly lacking in most elements you’d classify as part of their signature sound, save maybe Max Weinberg’s driving drumbeats – buried in Brendan O’Brien’s dense production, even Clarence Clemons’ sax solos are fairly muted. In their place, string instruments are practically omnipresent – primarily Soozie Tyrell’s, but there are no fewer than a dozen violin, viola and cello players credited on the album.
And that’s fitting, because even on the liveliest songs the strings bring a certain undercurrent of sadness that can’t help but permeate the proceedings. “Tell me how do you live broken-hearted?” Springsteen asks on “Mary’s Place,” the one song that most hearkens back to the upbeat E Street days of yore, and it’s a question that seems to guide Springsteen’s exploration of both individuals and a populace that have been devastated by tragedy.
For Springsteen, it’s not why it happened, or how we get revenge, or even what comes next that seems to matter most – it’s how we sustain a meaningful existence when something that feels so essential has been torn from us, be it a loved one, our security or even our sense of who we are.
Many of the songs on The Rising speak in terms universal enough that their meanings reach well beyond the events of Sept. 11. “Mary’s Place” could be about any post-funeral gathering where a survivor tries to lose himself in the crowd, and opening track “Lonesome Day” eases us in to the album’s overarching sense of bereavement, warning against blind revenge even as Springsteen reassures us that “It’s alright, It’s alright, It’s alright.”
Even “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” the album’s (OK, I’ll say it) sunniest track, can be read at multiple levels: Not really a happy song – it’s first words are “It’s raining” – it could be about a lover who’s gone away or a loved one who’s gone to rest. Either way, it carries through The Rising’s thread of somehow finding a way to get by in the here and now.
But elsewhere, Springsteen doesn’t shy away from specific events. In “Nothing Man,” the narrator shares the heavy personal price he’s paid just for surviving when so many others didn’t – written before Sept. 11, it still resonates with images from that day, from the “unbelievably blue” sky to the “misty cloud of pink vapor” that recalls the horrible descriptions of bodies hitting the New York streets.
And of course two songs on The Rising, “Into The Fire” and the title track, actually try to put us into those buildings on that day. The first is the less successful of the pair, told from the point of view of a survivor trying to make sense of a loved one who’s disappeared “into the dust”: You can almost feel the lyrics struggling with the sheer impossibility of what’s happened. But the spiritual chants that end the song – “may your strength give us strength, may your faith give us faith” – manage to pull us toward some higher meaning, some way of coping, if not understanding.
It’s “The Rising,” though, that stands as the centerpiece of the album and one of Springsteen’s most striking songs ever. Though clearly about a firefighter who narrates his last day and finally his last seconds on earth – until life is just “a catfish dancin’ on the end of the line” – it manages to feel utterly universal. At least part of that is the way it builds musically, from the subtle violins and snare snaps that start the song through when the full band kicks in, and finally to the gospel-tinged, guitar-fueled “Li li li’s” that provide the final catharsis.
Combined with lyrics that start off specific but eventually turn sweeping, with its tumbling allusions to glory, sadness, mercy, fear and “blessed life,” it becomes a song for the ages: a spiritual, a call to arms and a paean to ever-present, almost religious love. It’s a song that’s become all things to all people (which is probably why political candidates keep latching onto it).
But if “The Rising” is the album’s centerpiece, its foundation can be found in the songs that take on personal loss at a gut level. One of those is “Empty Sky,” with its eerie, mournful harmonica, speaking wrenchingly of the weight of loss and the thirst for revenge – “I want a kiss from your lips, I want an eye for an eye,” Springsteen sings in a resigned growl. But the album’s most anguished song – and maybe Springsteen’s saddest in his long career – has to be “You’re Missing,” with its images of the mundane facets of everyday life left behind after a loved one’s sudden death.
When Springsteen sings “coffee cup’s on the counter, jacket’s on the chair,” the harrowingly sudden nature of tragedy resonates, like a hole in the pit of your stomach. The song’s language is simple, carried along by a doleful cello and buoyed finally, ever so slightly, by Danny Federici’s organ solo at the song’s close. Amazingly, Springsteen managed to capture the overwhelming, sweeping heartbreak of Sept. 11 in those left-behind jackets and shoes.
If there’s one thing wrong with The Rising, it’s that it’s too sprawling, traveling off on tangents that detract from the whole. “Countin’ On A Miracle” feels like another run through themes he’s covered better elsewhere; “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)” has a nice soul vibe but sounds decidedly like an outtake; and “The Fuse” has some effective moments linking sex, death and a society on edge, but stalls musically and never quite starts up again.
If you can imagine an album made up of just 10 of the most satisfying and targeted tracks, rather than the 15 that eventually made it on, it could have had the same striking focus that marked Darkness on The Edge of Town. Maybe Springsteen thought that given the subject matter, the result would actually be too intense. But combine those less effective cuts with the sometimes frustrating lyrical vagueness that’s probably inevitable when your subject matter is, at its core, ungraspable, and what you have left is a flawed masterpiece.
But a masterpiece it is, and you need look no further than the final two tracks to see why. The moody “Paradise” is brave and uncompromising as it ties together a suicide bomber’s longing for the “breath of eternity” with a survivor’s final decision to “break above the waves” and go on living, a dynamic juxtaposition that sets up perfectly the closing track, “My City of Ruins.”
The song tells of empty streets, brothers down on their knees and being lost without a lover’s sweet kiss. Debuted on the “America: A Tribute to Heroes” telethon 10 days after the attacks, it encapsulated all the anguish of the previous days in a way that didn’t seem possible so soon afterward. Next, a few minutes in, there’s a plea to “rise up,” not in anger but in brotherhood. A minute or so later, Springsteen answers the question of how you live brokenhearted: “With these hands,” with prayer, with faith, with love, with strength. Then he imparts again: Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!
It’s a beautiful, hopeful moment that encapsulates Springsteen’s vision of America and what it’s capable of, if we can somehow come together. Call it flawed, overlong, or a futile attempt to grasp something that’s beyond human understanding – at the end of the day, The Rising has a rightful place in history as perhaps the most important and thoughtful artistic response to the 9/11 tragedy.