Sample Chapter: Bruce Springsteen
The Rising, Bruce Springsteen
WBUR Online Arts, August 14, 2002
THE ONLY THING more disappointing than a great talent doing mediocre work is a great talent turning in work that’s half-great, serving up a glimpse of greatness without the follow through. Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, released last week amid an unprecedented media blitz, is fronted by two tracks (the title song and “Lonesome Day”) that are quickening up summer’s bland radio fare. Both these tunes feed off and enlarge a shared rock history; they surge with hard-fought optimism. And yet, the overall concept of the album—to comment on 9/11 and its aftermath—proves too ambitious, even for the Great Empathizer, the Boss.
The participants are primed for great things. The E Street Band sounds revitalized, Springsteen’s voice is in great shape, and the music’s sound is spare yet lush. But The Rising rests on uneven and oddly sequenced material. The problem falls squarely on the shoulders of Pearl Jam’s producer, Brendan O’Brien, though his overall influence on the mix works. For years, Springsteen’s production team (manager and former critic Jon Landau, engineers Chuck Plotkin and Bob Clearmountain, sidekick Steve Van Zandt) has proved to be one of the closest-knit creative circles in the industry. Ten years ago, after Springsteen moved to L.A. and started recording with studio pros, he started taking sole production credit for himself. This is now seen as a misstep in an otherwise remarkably consistent career. Springsteen kept up the self-producing through Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), which barely echoed the spare working man’s poetry of Nebraska. It wasn’t until he regrouped with his E Street Band to record new songs for his Greatest Hits (1995) and the 1999–2000 world tour that Springsteen landed back on solid aesthetic ground. The tour was magnificent, and if you missed it, you owe yourself an evening cranking up the Live In New York City video. The new songs he performed for that project (“American Skin,” “Land of Hope and Dreams”) signaled a return to what he called his “rock voice,” which had eluded him for at least 10 years. (The live disc gives production credit to Jon Landau, George Travis, and Springsteen.)
In The Rising, O’Brien updates Springsteen’s sound with thoughtful details: chiming guitars, soulful organ licks, and teeming vocals. The ensemble work is peerless, and the band displays sublime control even when kicking into high bombast. O’Brien also gets drummer Max Weinberg to loosen up a little (especially on his hi-hat), which gives the entire CD new poise and confidence.
The catch is that, while many of these songs work outside the context of 9/11, some don’t work well addressing it. For example, “Into the Fire,” the most explicit 9/11 song, doesn’t have a bridge, as several other songs do (“Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” “Nothing Man,” “Worlds Apart,” “Let’s Be Friends”). Its refrain is so stirring (“May your strength give us faith/May your faith give us faith…”) it nearly atones for the verse’s skimpy lyric. In fact, the topical songs on the album work better when they stay an arm’s length from 9/11: “You’re Missing” or “Nothing Man,” which could be his version of “A Day In the Life.” Likewise, a few of Springsteen’s earlier tunes fit more comfortably in the 9/11 context: “Back In Your Arms Again,” for example, or “No Surrender,” or “Land of Hope and Dreams,” all of which promise to ring out with new meaning in concert.
One or two bridge-free ABA songs can work on a richer album, but here things feel incomplete, even if the apparent aim is to be skeletal.
One or two bridge-free ABA songs can work on a richer album, but here things feel incomplete, even if the apparent aim is to be skeletal. The theme of loss is supposed to be conveyed in the minimalism of the music. “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” for example, switches keys aimlessly; it’s the slightest thing here (and, inexplicably, turned into a crowd favorite). “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin),” opens with a fetching Stax lilt while some coy piano rejoinders ripple down from above. But the song never gets much traction; it’s a good beginning in search of a payoff. “Countin’ on a Miracle” and “Mary’s Place” strive to be crowd-pleasers, but manage to make only about half the journey.
By comparison, Springsteen’s “Born to Run” guzzles melody like cheap gasoline.
The promising lead track, “Lonesome Day,” features a fiddle player, Soozie Tyrell, who has since become a full-fledged E Street Band member. This may not be the producer’s call, but somebody has to come out and say it: the last thing the E Street Band needs is another person onstage. There are already way too many people up there: Springsteen himself takes the majority of guitar solos even though he’s got Nils Lofgren riding shotgun (and Miami Steve never should have left in the first place). On the last tour, Springsteen made it all work somehow; he is generous-hearted to a fault, which makes the music all but irresistible onstage. He’ll probably make this enlarged band work too, but it would be more challenging for everybody, his players and his audience, if he pared down the love fest on stage.
Ironically, Springsteen is known for over-worrying about his albums, spending way too long in the studio fussing over mixes, but this record could have benefited from more thought. It sounds like the first draft of something that cries out for editing, namely, a close inspection by Jon Landau. And Springsteen himself seems aware of it: for both his Today show and Late Night sets he played the CD’s two standouts: the “The Rising” and “Lonesome Day,” which only get better with time. David Letterman posed this pointed question about the creative process: “Are you the best judge of when something is finished?” Springsteen shrugged and said he’d gotten pretty good at it over the years. As producer, O’Brien may have been too busy twiddling knobs, or simply too intimidated to focus more on pre-production. But if you’re going to produce Springsteen, part of your job is to tell your boss that certain songs need more work. You have to wonder: did Jon Landau have a say in the final cut? This may be one recording Springsteen finished too soon. Let the bootlegs roll.