'The Rising' sounds like mediocre Boss of the '90s

July 30, 2002


Eagerly anticipated by the hordes of the faithful, the new album by Bruce Springsteen and the reunited E Street Band finally arrives in stores today. But while "The Rising" isn't a bad album, it certainly isn't a great one.

The objective listener's first reaction will probably be, "We waited 18 years for this ?"

Subtlety has never been the Boss' forte--he's the most obvious of any of the iconic Baby Boom rockers, forever wearing his heart on his sleeve and leaving a slippery puddle of blood on the floor--and that trait has only been amplified with the passing of time.

Reams of pre-release publicity have positioned "The Rising" as a concept album in a response to the events of Sept. 11. Seemingly dwarfed by the global ramifications, Springsteen typically concentrates on their impact on his beloved Everyman. "You can call me Joe," he sings, then slides into the guise of the courageous fireman climbing the stairs of the World Trade Center, the wife who is left behind and even the young suicide bomber who's propelled to commit an unholy act.

But while New Jersey's favorite son aims for subtlety, he achieves only a muddled opaqueness. We feel for his subjects only passingly and in a superficial, movie-of-the-week way. The Boss achieves nothing close to the depth of emotion he evoked for Amadou Diallo, the West African immigrant whose slaughter by New York police Springsteen angrily chronicled in "American Skin (41 Shots)."

And throughout, he resorts to familiar themes and hollow cliches: "It's rainin' but there ain't a cloud in the sky"; "I'm countin' on a miracle"; "Sometimes the truth just ain't enough"; "I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me"; "Without you, girl, I'm a drummer that can't keep a beat"; "Good things got a way of comin' to an end."

In fact, if you attempt to listen to "The Rising" divorced from the appropriated connection to Sept. 11, it plays much like the Boss' similarly mediocre '90s solo albums, "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town."

Here are the ruminations of a 52-year-old man who no longer has the burning conviction that "tramps like us, baby, we were born to run," and who now spends his time contemplating love, family and (with an unseemly dose of self-pity) his mortality.

In other words, "The Rising" doesn't rock much, although it tries awfully hard.

Producer Brendan O'Brien, best known for his work with Pearl Jam, lends an impressive crunch to Mighty Max Weinberg's ever-reliable backbeat, and to the sporadic bursts of tortured feedback guitar from Miami Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren. But the E Street Band's most remarkable new sound is a lilting Celtic underpinning, heavy on the mandolin, fiddle playing and choruses of "li-li-li" backing vocals.

Always a good soundtrack for mourning, folk-rock is best played with understatement, a la Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention. But like Springsteen's lyrics, the E Street Band's music has always been about bombast, transferring that famous Phil Spector wall of sound to a South Jersey go-go bar. Essentially one-trick ponies, the musicians simply have no feel for the heavier material here, with sax man Clarence Clemons and keyboardists Danny Federici and Roy Bittan sounding especially lost.

As a result, the most effective moments on "The Rising" are the most extreme: the ones where the E Street Band is either missing or hanging far in the background, or turning the intensity up to "11" and becoming a near caricature of itself.

In the former category are "Paradise," the song where Springsteen pairs the suffering of a young Palestinian suicide bomber with that of a victim of the attack on the Pentagon (the band is missing entirely, and he performs solo in a mode that recalls "Streets of Philadelphia"), and "You're Missing," one of several songs about waking up to an unused coffee mug and an empty jacket draped over the chair (here, the E Streeters lay back until the last 30 seconds, then provide a beautiful, swelling outro as a coda).

The best song in the latter group is the one that plays most like a throwaway; "Mary's Place" is the sort of boogie-down party anthem that could have been hanging around since the days at the Stone Pony, circa "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J." (1973).

Here, Bruce and the band give up trying to say something, down a few pitchers of MGD, ogle the girls at the pool table (unless they're at the Ba-Da-Bing Club), and croon, "Meet me at Mary's place, we're gonna have a party!"

For six minutes, this seems like an awfully appealing notion, if not a particularly original or important one. And it's the only time on "The Rising" that we catch a glimpse of Springsteen and the E Street Band when they were at their best.