I fell in love with Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, about a month ago, and doing so has made listening to The Rising an entirely different experience than it would have been otherwise. Over the last several years, the songwriter’s dedication to all sorts of worthy causes has managed to filter into my consciousness, but I hadn’t really bothered to go out and buy an album since Born in the U.S.A., which I purchased (on tape) when I was 12. My loss. He’s been up to great things—protesting Proposition 209, humanizing AIDS sufferers, and sharply criticizing police brutality after the Amadou Diallo killing, just to name a few. He even re-birthed the title song from Born in the U.S.A., clarifying the irony and sarcasm of the lyrics, in a slow, stripped-down live version.
In The Ghost of Tom Joad, a contemporary sequel to John Steinbeck’s classic Dust Bowl novel The Grapes of Wrath, Springsteen weds his gruff machismo with a deep empathy for the varied players in the bizarre drama of the southwestern United States, particularly the U.S./Mexico border. We meet undocumented Mexican workers and U.S. border patrol agents, Vietnam veterans from Texas and Vietnam, a drug addict living under the freeways of San Diego, a reformed, restless ex-con. With a guitar, harmonica, and an almost whispering voice, Springsteen adeptly inhabits the separate, intersecting worlds of these characters, raising questions not only through each individual song, but in the implicit dialogue between them. Alone, each story is rich with meaning and artfully told. But together, they create a tense, contradictory community, and in listening, you unwittingly become each of its members.
The theme of The Rising, released a month ago, is the Sept. 11 tragedy, and I had hopes that Springsteen would approach that topic with the same sensitivity and genius. In my estimation, he did not. The Rising is a groover, and it is good to hear the E Street Band again, this being their first appearance on a Springsteen studio record since Born in the U.S.A. Everyone sounds like they’re having a blast playing together, and their chemistry is highly appealing. But back with the boys, on a record clearly produced for mass consumption, Bruce seems unable or unwilling to take the risks that he took when alone with a guitar for Ghost. Where Ghost is understated, Rising is bombastic; where Ghost revels in contradiction, Rising delights in chorus after chorus of repeated, unoriginal slogans (countin’ on a miracle; waitin’ on a sunny day; it’s all right).
Springsteen does speak in a variety of voices on the album: a husband longing for a lost wife in “You’re Missing,” a surviving hero in “Nothing Man,” and, in several songs, a New Yorker or perhaps New York City as a whole, encountering itself against the dramatic backdrop of 9/11 and re-discovering its heart and its strength. Clearly, this album would resonate differently for a New Yorker, a family member of a victim, or a rescue worker than it does for me. And even I am not so distant nor so ideologically constrained that I can’t feel the honest emotion coming through in some of these songs—fear, agony, shock, and the determination to rise again. But outside of “Worlds Apart,” the one song that suggests the perspective of someone from a “dry and troubled country,” the sharp juxtapositions that bring Ghost to life are absent here. Yes, there are different voices, but they essentially say only one thing: We have been hurt, but we will overcome, and rise again. Or, as Springsteen puts it in “Lonesome Day,” “A little revenge and this too shall pass.”
Art exists in a context, and the context for this album is a nation that has been repeating slogans of unification and strength to itself through every medium available, non-stop, for a year. So how do you explore similar sentiments in song and retain any authenticity at all? Even if, as I believe is the case here, you do truly feel moved to repeatedly shout “Come on, rise up!” or “Come on up for the rising!” (the choruses of two different songs), from the depths of your soul? It’s an interesting and extremely difficult challenge, perhaps an impossible one, given that you can’t even buy a stamp anymore without tacitly become part of the “United We Stand” jingoism machine.
In any case, for me, these songs lack the subtlety and grace necessary to unwrap the flag which has been so tightly wound around 9/11, and fail to connect me with the raw, un-manipulated experience of it. The fact that The Rising was delivered with a high-powered marketing punch only serves to further my wariness. It has received nothing but kudos from the mainstream media, it debuted at Number One on the Billboard charts, and it sold over a half-million copies in its first week. It’s almost as popular as the flag itself.
There are exceptions. “Paradise” is truly heartbreaking, and Springsteen was brave, given the current climate, to include Pakistani singer Asif Ali Khan and his group on “Worlds Apart.” And it could have been worse—it could have been a “fuck those rag-heads, we’re Americans!” album, which it’s not. But it also could have been a whole lot better. The Boss could have used his artistic brilliance to give us an album that probes deeper into the dark complexities of 9/11, and in so doing, he might have provided us a more pure and authentic redemption. If he’d then used his star power to sell that album, well, I might have gone a little ga-ga for the guy. As it stands, I still respect him a great deal, and I look forward to better things from him in the future.