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Springsteen sings { July 30 2002 }

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Pop Painkiller
On 'The Rising,' Springsteen Offers Healing Balm With a Short Shelf Life

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 30, 2002; Page C01

How do you make pop music about an atrocity? It's a tough question, and merely posing it hints at the perils awaiting anyone who dares an answer. To capture the essence of a calamity in five chords and a drumbeat is asking a lot -- more, perhaps, than can be expected from a genre created for news flashes like "I wanna hold your hand." Rock, bless its heart, can lend urgency to the trivial, but it also has the power to make the solemn seem ridiculous.

That's why the terrorism of Sept. 11 is a creative bramble that only the brave, foolish or inspired would go near. Bruce Springsteen seems, at various moments, to be all three on his new album, "The Rising," a mournful, elegiac, sometimes hopeful look at the anguish and aftermath of the day that more than 3,000 people were killed. It's his first studio recording with the E Street Band since 1984.

If albums were judged purely by their intentions, this one would go straight into the pantheon. Springsteen is attempting nothing less than an act of national consolation. He describes our pain, details our horror and inventories our loss. He offers the sort of reassurances that would seem unconvincing or cliched coming from someone else. When he sings "This, too, shall pass," on the opening track, "Lonesome Day," it's actually comforting. He has so much authority in his voice and so much accumulated gravity from his three-decade career that you think, "Well, he must be right."

It seems ungrateful to find fault with a hug and a pep talk -- a bit like criticizing the buffet at a wake. But "The Rising" suggests that rock would be well advised to leave 9/11 alone.

Springsteen has given us a balm for a wound; when he plays these songs on his upcoming summer tour, he's going to do a lot of healing. But as that wound matures into a scar, "The Rising" is doomed to seem dated. Beyond the pathos of a singular moment that it evokes, there isn't enough here for the album to stand among the artist's finest recordings.

Wisely, Springsteen works in miniatures here. Instead of grand, overarching statements, he offers personal narratives sung, ostensibly, by characters directly affected by the fire and bloodshed at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (although he never mentions those names). Nearly everyone is struggling with a void. The singer of "Nothing Man," a rescue worker who survived, copes with a return to routine life that he is too shattered to handle ("Around here, everybody acts like nothing's changed"). A husband dreams of reuniting with his deceased wife on "Countin' on a Miracle." In "Empty Sky," there are vows of revenge by a narrator left only with memories and "an empty impression in the bed where you used to be." The singer of "You're Missing" finds comfort in the quotidian -- "coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair" -- but something is permanently awry: "You're missing when I shut out the lights / You're missing when I close my eyes."

Springsteen has been singing in the voice of the haunted since the mid-'70s. No one in rock has more touchingly or convincingly captured interior turmoil -- the young men itching to bolt from adolescence on 1975's "Born to Run," the hollowed souls who drag-race in shadows on 1978's "Darkness on the Edge of Town," the husbands struggling to remain faithful on 1987's "Tunnel of Love."

But usually Springsteen calibrates his music to his lyrics. On "The Rising," the lyrics and the music often seem to ignore each other. For some reason, Springsteen sings with a mild Southern accent, which seems an odd choice for songs about a New York and Washington disaster. And the production is sometimes as fussy and bright as the words are dire. The sound, produced and mixed by Brendan O'Brien, who has worked with Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine, has the wet finish of a pop-country album.

On a handful of upbeat songs, O'Brien's sonic cheer suits the material, as on tracks like "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)," a bit of rapprochement rock with a beat that pads and bounces with optimism. Many of the sadder numbers, though, would have packed double the punch with half the windup. Springsteen and Co. clearly wanted to make arena rock, filled with singalong choruses and clap-along drums -- but the subject matter doesn't call for grandiosity. The recurring image of the album is a man yearning for a kiss from a lover he'll never meet again. It's the sort of quiet, searing wish that has more power whispered than shouted, but there isn't much whispering here. The simple and loud trumps the complex and quiet.

Worse, the lyrics often fall short of the standards that Springsteen established long ago. "Hot damn, what a passel o' verbiage," the critic Lester Bangs wrote admiringly in Rolling Stone about 1973's "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J." the Boss's debut album. It's unlikely anyone will exult like that about "Rising" songs such as "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," whose chorus is: "Waitin' on a sunny day / Gonna chase the clouds away / Waitin' on a sunny day." The seduction of "The Fuse" culminates with this clunker of a come-on: "The fuse is burning / Shut out the lights / The fuse is burning / Come on, let me do you right."

There are exceptions, most notably "Paradise," the album's most shattering, challenging moment. The first half is sung by a suicide bomber, on the verge of killing himself and others and heading, he thinks, to Heaven. The second half belongs to a man eager to join the wife he lost at the Pentagon; he tries to drown himself in a river, but chooses life when he "sees" his love in the afterlife and realizes, from the emptiness in her eyes, that paradise has troubles, too. Two men from different worlds, one a victim, another a killer. Springsteen doesn't equate the pair. He merely sketches quick portraits of each that illustrate how desperate people can, at least momentarily, confuse death with salvation.

No one but Springsteen could have written "Paradise." He has always trafficked in shades of the truth that are far more interesting than black and white, and over the years he has sung, with compelling sympathy, about car thiefs, serial killers and a variety of miscreants. He reflexively finds a core of humanity in every psyche.

But how do you find the core of humanity in the criminals of Sept. 11? The novelist in Springsteen must have been sorely tempted by these characters; he is drawn, after all, to the hopeless. On some level, though, the killings of September are too unambiguous a catastrophe for Springsteen. He's not a Good and Evil kind of guy.

Loss, of course, is a worthy theme, but by penning songs about a particular loss from a particular day, Springsteen has created something that is both intensely rousing and stamped with a "sell by" date.

That's the trouble with writing about real-life events -- even the big ones fade into memory, and the emotions they tap fade, too. Yes, we owe this guy and the band he reunited for "The Rising." But once we're healed, there are a lot of other albums we'll listen to first.

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8181.)

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